The meat industry is big, and it’s getting bigger. Total meat production has increased 5 fold since 1961, when the average person consumed around 22 kilograms of meat annually. In 2014, that number was as high as 43 kilograms. The average North American consumes more than 110 kilograms of meat a year. Meanwhile, raising livestock takes up nearly 80% of global agricultural land, but only produces 20% of the world’s calories. Meat, particularly beef, is highly inefficient to produce: . Only 1% of the calories cattle consume are converted into calories in beef. Even for poultry, this number is just 11%. Raising cattle requires an enormous amount of land, food, and freshwater, and produces more greenhouse gas emissions per unit of protein than any other commonly consumed food. According to the UN, raising animals for food emits more greenhouse gas than all forms of transportation combined. Because of the amount of feed that needs to be grown to raise cattle, even more land and water must be used exclusively for the production of beef. A study by the World Resources Institute found that reducing our consumption of red meat–primarily beef and lamb–would reduce per-capita food and land-use greenhouse gas emissions by between 15 and 35 percent.
But is this the only option? By the end of 2018, it may not be. It has long been the dream of the scientific imagination that one day human beings would eat meat that was grown rather than raised and slaughtered. But now, companies have begun using advanced medical technologies and applying them to food production. The result: Lab-grown meat.
Dubbed “clean meat,” lab-grown meat is exactly what it sounds like. Scientists take a miniscule sample of skeletal muscle from a cow, fish, or chicken, isolate satellite cells (the precursors to skeletal muscle cells), and culture them. Then, just as they would within the animal, the cells reproduce and grow into muscle. So far, companies can only produce ground meat, as creating an intact muscle structure is much more complex, but they’ve successfully developed the technology to create hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken nuggets, and more.
Though it hasn’t hit the shelves, experts are already predicting the benefits of clean meat – the most obvious benefit is that the process is completely humane. No animals are slaughtered, or even involved in the process once the sample is taken. Once a beef strain is perfected, no samples will have to be taken again, and taking the initial muscle sample does not harm the animal in the first place. Clean meat is also safer to eat than regular meat. Because only muscle is being grown – without organs or blood vessels – intestinal pathogens like E. coli can’t infect the meat. In theory, clean meat will also be substantially better for the environment. Without animals, the process of meat production will require significantly less land – as food won’t have to be grown for the meat, and we won’t need space for millions of cows. Without direct animal involvement, the process will require much less water, and will produce substantially fewer greenhouse gases than traditional cattle farming. Clean meat facilities could also be spread out more, and even located in urban areas, which would cut down on both the financial and environmental costs of transportation.
However, clean meat is far from a perfect solution, and it still has a ways to come before it’s anywhere close. As with any organic material, growing meat requires nutrients. One of the most important nutrients is protein which, in this case, typically has to come from serums made of animal blood. Protein serums are extremely expensive. One ounce of fish serum, used in lab-growing fish meat, will set you back $850. Animal blood certainly doesn’t look good for a product that is intended to be cruelty free either. Reducing the need for protein serums is one major obstacle keeping clean meat off the shelves as it stands now, but things are changing fast. One clean meat startup called Finless Foods has successfully reduced their serum use by 50% already, and says they won’t be putting anything to market that isn’t 100% serum-free. This is not only to avoid bad PR about using animal blood, but also because the price of serum doesn’t make economic sense. Another clean meat company claims it has already cracked the code for a cruelty-free protein concoction, but naturally won’t reveal their secret recipe.
There have been few studies done on the actual ecological impacts of clean meat. In theory, you can argue that because we wouldn’t be raising living animals, the demands for food, water, and land would be greatly reduced. However, there are many potential sources of environmental harm that could come from industrialized clean meat, such as the carbon cost of operating lab and manufacturing facilities. There simply hasn’t been enough research on the subject yet to point definitively in either direction.
For now, no one believes that lab grown meat will completely replace traditional sources of meat – at least not for a very, very long time. Instead, agriculturalists see lab-grown meat as an ally in the fight for sustainable food. Just like the green energy push has many moving parts – hydroelectric, wind, solar, etc – there is no single fix-all solution to the issues facing the meat industry. Instead, clean-meat serves as an example of how humans are using advanced technology to create a more sustainable future.