Lab-grown meat could be the future of food
In a few decades' time, will our children and our grandchildren be judging us for killing and eating so many animals? Richard Branson thinks so. In an August 2017 blog post, the Virgin group founder announced he had invested in lab-grown meat startup business Memphis Meats writing: "I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone. One day we will look back and think how archaic our grandparents were in killing animals for food."
Is he right? Are our generation and the generations before us going to be deemed barbarous for that massive turkey on Thanksgiving? All of those family BBQs? The many, many cheeseburgers we've chowed down in MacDonald's after a booze-fuelled night out? Or - far be it from me to disparage the word of a multi-billionaire who can boast more success than I'm ever likely to have but - is he being overly optimistic?
The answer to this question remains to be seen and mostly depends on whether lab-grown food honestly is our future. For years now, several companies across the world have been working to produce meat and fish from animal cells, forgoing the need to murder the estimated 56 billion farmed animals the world devours each year.
“The world loves to eat meat, and it is core to many of our cultures and traditions,” wrote Memphis Meats co-founder and CEO Uma Valeti in a press release. “Meat demand is growing rapidly around the world. We want the world to keep eating what it loves. However, the way conventional meat is produced today creates challenges for the environment, animal welfare and human health.”
Valeti is unquestionably right. For years now, it's been made abundantly clear that we have a food system that simply isn't working anymore. Put plainly, we're eating too many animals and don't have the resources to sustain our current model of production. To make matters worse, it's been predicted that consumption could increase by four per cent per person over the next ten years. And that's without even considering the environmental effects of our protein-packed diet. Livestock apparently produces 15-18 per cent of all "man-made" greenhouse gas emissions – making it a bigger contributor to global warming and environmental degradation than every single form of transportation out there. Basically, we're screwed.
So, is lab-grown meat, (also known as "in vitro meat") honestly the way to save a hopeless situation? Maybe, maybe not. Research tells us there would be some fairly sizeable roadblocks in convincing people to go out and buy it, the foremost stumble being that people don't want to put something in their body that was cooked up by scientists kitted out in white lab coats. Public reaction to the idea of growing meat artificially has, unsurprisingly, been mixed, with a PLOS One survey revealing that although 65 per cent of people would be willing to try it, only a third said they would use it regularly or as a replacement for farmed meat.
Ironically, one of the main consumer concerns about the product was that the process in which it is made is unnatural. What people conveniently forget is that fact that most of the food we eat has been through some sort of abnormal process; bread, cheese, wine, yoghurt and many other foods we eat on a daily basis are completely unnatural, but we have just become unaccustomed to eating them and not pondering over how it got to the supermarket shelf.
However, when you hear how "clean meat" is made, it becomes immediately more clear why people are sceptical about serving it up at dinnertime to the family. In order to produce meat without killing animals, many scientists use a serum made from the blood of calf fetuses called fetal bovine serum, adding it to the cells in the petri dish in order to grow them. Sound appetising? Not so much. But, not only is this process uncomfortable to think about for potential consumers out there, it also sheds doubt on whether the burgeoning industry is actually as murder-free as it claims to be.
Reports in the media suggest that in order to collect the bovine, a cow fetus is removed from its mother and brought into a blood collection room where it is drained until it dies - in many people's opinions, completely and utterly defeating the point of "murder-free" meat. Companies are currently attempting to produce meat without fetal bovine serum, feeding the cells with only nutrients to reduce the impact on the world's cattle herds. Valeti told the Guardian: “Our goal is to entirely remove the animal from the meat production process.”
If the budding businesses across the world do succeed in their mission to exclude cows, pigs, chickens and other farmyard favourites from the process, experts expect the effects on greenhouse gases to be profound, with some even claiming that it would be something akin to taking 23 million cars off the roads. But, despite what hundreds of scientists are telling us, cynics are not completely buying the idea that not eating meat would improve the environment that much, a 2011 study claims that producing the product in America may give out fewer greenhouse emissions, but it might also use about the same amount of energy as the European pork industry. Are they right? We probably won't know unless we try.
In addition, those who were surveyed by PLOS One cited cost as another of their main concerns. They're not wrong. It's was reported in July 2017 that Memphis Meats has to spend around $2,400 to produce 450 grams of beef, a horrifying prospect when you consider the fact that supermarkets are selling beef mince for about $5 per pop. Although the company has insisted that the price is falling and aim for their product to hit the market in 2021, their critics have suggested that in vitro meat is likely to be an expensive item for a long time coming, prompting discussion of whether it would be an option only for the wealthy.
Ultimately, whether it be the "yuck" factor, making it without harming any animals or doubt over whether it will solve environmental problems, there appears no end to the uncertainty and suspicion over the lab-grown meat industry. Hailed by the worldwide press for being the solution to all of our problems, the perplexing issues surrounding it have others insisting that we should be pooling all of our energy into finding plant-based alternatives instead.
Nonetheless, we shouldn't shoot it down before we've even given it a chance. After all, if the no-murder meat does what it says it will do, it will be pretty spectacular. Yet the main issue for now is for scientists to actually produce a product and get it on the global market. With companies like Memphis Meats, Hampton Creek and Mosa Meat working away at it, hopefully it won't be long until we get the chance to see it in action. But, as usual, China has beaten us to the punch. In September 2017, it was announced that China had signed a $300 million in vitro meat deal with Israel so they may be the guinea pig country to employ trial and error to soothe our apprehension. Here's hoping somewhere can crack it, because it's evident that we need to do something and soon.
Featured illustration by Egarcigu