Meat or not meat, that is the question

April 5, 2019
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In spite of the rise of vegetarianism, we still consume about 500 million tons of meat each year. Large quantities of natural resources are needed for meat production, and these resources deplete our planet. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only problem facing us. Because of the continuing population growth, increasingly more meat will have to be produced. How can we increase meat production without causing too much damage to our planet and our live stock?

Synthetic meat

Several companies (such as Modern Meadow) and scientists specialise in transforming human and animal stem cells into tissue. This technique allows them to grow synthetic meat, often referred to as cultured meat, separate from actual animals. Stem cells from living animals are placed in a growth medium of amino acids, fats and sugars, in which they naturally multiply and transform into muscle tissue.

Valuable

High resource costs and environmental degradation
Producing meat requires plenty of natural resources. It involves live animals who require specific food. This food needs to grow, and therefore, needs water. To harvest the food, machines are needed. To turn the food into animal feed, resources are needed. To transport animal feed, fuel is needed. Live stock requires outdoor or indoor living spaces. If animals are kept in a barn, then that barn will need electricity. When animals are ready for slaughtering, they need to be transported, which again requires fuel. Electricity is used during the slaughter procedures, and the transport of meat to shops and wholesalers leads to even more fuel consumption. On top of that, livestock such as cows produce high amounts of methane and other greenhouse gases. These gases contribute to global warming and all of its negative effects.

It is obvious that the production of meat requires a significant share of our limited resources.

Nature
Cultured meat reduces the amount of water and land needed by 95%. If fewer animals are needed for meat production, we can give more land back to nature. Besides that, cultured meat needs far less hormones and antibiotics, which means fewer negative effects on our health.

Growing demand
The demand for meat is growing, despite the trend of vegetarianism. This is partly because of the increasing world population. It is expected that a lot more meat will be needed in the future, particularly in countries such as Russia, China and India. Increased mass production will lead to an increased strain on resources and, quite likely, a deterioration in animal welfare as well.

Animal welfare
On the other hand, cultured meat will improve animal welfare. Fewer animals will need to be killed for their meat, so there will be no more need for mass production and, as a result, animals will have a higher quality of life.

Tailor made
Tailor made meat isn’t something that will be available right away, but in the future, it could be possible to have a variety of meat types for different types of consumers. For instance, certain vitamins could be added that are not naturally present in regular meat.

Status
A hamburger made from cultured meat has already passed the taste test in London. Steak chips, made from cow muscles, have been tested as well, with good results. It will take a while before you’ll find them in the supermarket though, due to the laws that will have to be approved first.
Usually this process takes about eighteen months. During this time, the producers will have the opportunity to prove that their product is safe and healthy.

Because an ever-growing number of companies are starting to see the potential of cultured meat, the amount of research being done is increasing. This can help bring cultured meat to the market faster than was expected initially. Based on current predictions, it could be as early as 2021, with some companies even aiming for 2020.

Organisations
Currently, there are companies worldwide researching cultured meat. One Dutch company doing just that is Mosa Meat. Its owner launched his first cultured burger in 2013. Although the burger was a bit dry, Mosa Meat is trying to create juicier meat now, and on a large scale. It will be sold as a luxury product initially, at sixty euros per kilo. Right now, they are growing the meat in the foetus of a slaughtered cow, but if the company wants to turn this into a success, they’ll have to create a better solution. After all, the principle is to produce meat without the need to slaughter any animals.

The dilemma that the cultured meat industry is facing, is that consumers obviously want to know what they are eating, while the producers want to keep their recipes out of their competitors’ hands. American NGO New Harvest is financing five universities to research the options for a wider offer of cultured meat, including turkey and lobster. In the US, Finless Foods and Blue Nalu mainly research cultured fish, which is a cheaper process because fish cells require a lower temperature and therefore less electricity.

Barriers

At the time of writing, it is difficult to predict the long-term effects of cultured meat, simply because it is not yet being produced and consumed in large amounts. Current research shows that it is still too early to determine if cultured meat is the ideal solution for the environment. In many cases, the required electricity will still be generated through fossil fuels. On top of that, more water will be needed than was initially expected. Cultured meat doesn’t have an immune system, so it will have to be sterilised, requiring large quantities of water.

Not all animal ingredients and animal products can be replaced by cultured meat, such as ingredients in cosmetics and pharmaceutical products, and other useful commodities such as leather. These products are much more difficult to replace than actual meat. We still need to do a lot more research if we wish to replace all animal products completely.


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Categories:   Environment   Let go
Bruno Delepierre

Socially inspired entrepreneur, organizer of TEDx in Leuven, friend of M.I.T. Happonomy alchemist.

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