How long do you think it will take to be able to eat a delicious, organic and healthy burger that was made using lab-cultivated meat? Although I can’t give you a definite answer, I can assure you that it will not be too far out in the future — perhaps even in the next 5-10 years, depending on regulation.
If you think about the agriculture industry, we’ve come a long way. Up until the end of the 18th century, the vast majority of people were farmers. The 18th and 19th centuries accelerated an ongoing revolution in agriculture, with the use of animal and human labor as key sources of power. Physics, chemistry and biology became tools to revolutionize agricultural systems. Then later, it would be the adoption of new power sources, such as steam, as well as increased use of chemicals. Today, advanced plant and livestock breeding through genetic engineering promises to improve shelf life and provide resistance to disease, stress resistance, herbicide, pests and insects.
The revolution won’t change how food is delivered but rather, how food is produced, prepared and processed. The following trends confirm this:
- Healthier consumer eating habits: Brands are investing more in healthier food. Health and wellness are now used to position and brand corporations. For example, Hershey recently acquired Pirate Brands for $420 million to expand its product portfolio of better-for-you snacks and to target younger consumers (millennials and Gen Z) who demand healthier options.
- Growing demand in meat-alternatives: Bloomberg last summer reported that plant-based meat alternatives totaled $670 million in sales in the US — a 24 percent jump from last year.
- Willingness to pay for sustainability: Shoppers are willing to pay a premium to protect the environment. As business practices in waste reduction, energy saving and social impact become the norm rather than the exception, the B Corp movement is set to differentiate sustainable businesses and offer a competitive advantage to those that adopt these standards. For reference, a certified B Corp is a for-profit corporation that has been certified by B Lab, a non-profit that measures a company’s social and environmental performance against the standards of the online B Impact Assessment.
Not only are Earth’s resources being drained, but the exponential increase in the global population is putting our future at risk. Luckily, scientists have found a solution to keep feeding the human kind — a new production method for live-stock: the lab! You no longer need land for the livestock to roam nor machines to process meat. In fact, you don’t need the animal at all.
Production of cell-cultured meat involves retrieving a live animal’s muscle stem cells from the tissue and setting them in a nutrient-rich liquid. The cells multiply dramatically and become differentiated into primitive fibers that then bulk up to form muscle tissue.
According to Scientific American, “one tissue sample from a cow can yield enough muscle tissue to make 80,000 quarter-pounders.” Lab-grown meat caught the public’s attention in 2013 but was too expensive to commercialize. As the technology improved and the competition increased, it came to a point where the US Food and Drug Administration began to think about regulating the nascent industry. Key players today include Mosa Meat, Memphis Meats, SuperMeat and Finless Foods; they have already raised millions in funding. In 2017, for instance, “clean meat” producer Memphis Meats announced $17 million in seed funding, according to Venturebeat.
There are many reasons why this new wave of producing meat could be the solution to Earth’s growing food demands, poor health and pollution from food production. For one, the process doesn’t involve livestock and thus avoids slaughter and saves endangered animals. Secondly, the meat could potentially be healthier, containing more protein and polyunsaturated fatty acids compared to traditional meat; this eliminates saturated fat, potentially reducing the risk of chronic diseases.
Moreover, it minimizes animal-borne diseases. This means, no need for growth hormones, pesticides, fungicides, aflatoxins or melamine used in the traditional meat industry. People would consume fewer natural resources, reducing negative impacts to the environmental. Meat could become cheaper and more accessible, hence more accessible in developing countries. According to Food & Nutrition Magazine, researchers comparing the production of cultured and conventional meat found that producing 1,000 kilograms of cultured meat involves approximately 7-45 percent lower energy use, 78-96 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions, 99 percent lower land use and 82-96 percent lower water use.
Livestock is the fastest growing sub-sector of agriculture and employs 1.3 billion people, according to Food & Nutrition Magazine. Environmental groups, animal welfare advocates and some health-conscious consumers will most likely be the biggest advocates of lab-grown meat. Many farmers, on the other hand, have been vocal about their concerns on potential unemployment and have pushed for stronger regulation. Moreover, vegans and certain religious groups continue to feel that any exploitation of animals is unacceptable.
Based on Michigan State University’s Food Literacy and Engagement Poll from March last year, consumption and the perception of lab-meat vary. Attitudes related to this innovation is dependent on various factors, such as: demographics, labeling, and consumers’ values and personal experiences. As a result, 48 percent of respondents said that they would be unlikely to purchase lab-processed meat. Yet, consumers with higher income were found to be more likely to switch from being “undecided” about cultured meat to being “willing to try.” As far as age goes, younger people (between 18 and 29 years old) were five times more likely to purchase cultured meat products than those who were 55 and older.
Currently, we consume food without being 100 percent sure of how the animal was treated and processed. We trust labels claiming “organic,” a word widely used and interpreted. Regarding lab-meat, I see no reason not to trust science. Although regulations across different countries could accelerate or decelerate lab-cultivated food consumption, the benefits of this new production method are too important to ignore.
Photo credit: Agriland UK