Meat consumption is forecast to double in the next 30 years as the world gets richer and developing nations form a taste for farmed protein. However, it’s a shift the planet may not be able to sustain with traditional farming. One solution is lab-grown meat.
In 1932, eight years before he became British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill pondered the madness of growing an entire animal to eat only part of it.
“Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium,” he wrote in his collection of essays, Thoughts and Adventures.
Then, the prediction was the realm of science fiction. Now, however, it may be an answer to the ever-increasing pressure put on the planet by farming meat.
“You don’t need a lot of resources, you don’t need a lot of water … and thirdly you don’t need a lot of skilled forces to do this,” says Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
Post is credited with developing the first ever cell-cultured beef hamburger. In 2013, at an event in London, he showcased his creation. He had taken a muscle sample from a cow and separated the muscle specific stem cells. He then allowed these cells to multiply until they numbered in their trillions. Then he again separated the cells into smaller groupings that could be compacted together. Post added salt and breadcrumbs before cooking the finished product. Voila – a lab grown burger.
Using this method, the burger required just 225g of nutrients to produce 200g of beef whereas the typical burger requires 1.3kg of feed to produce 200g beef. Producing the lab-grown meat also had 96 percent lower greenhouse-gas emissions, 99 percent lower land use, and 82 to 96 percent less water use than European produced meat – excluding poultry.
Post believes that if his method can be scaled up it will have a huge impact on the future of agriculture and the world.
“It will tremendously reduce the amount of livestock farming that we have on this planet, because of all the negative consequences of it.”
The scale of the problem
Roughly one third of the Earth’s land is used for agriculture and 70 percent of this is used for raising livestock. If this pasture was used to grow crops instead it could potentially provide enough calories to meet the basic needs of an additional 4 billion people –more than enough to meet the needs of the forecasted 2050 population.
But that transition is unlikely to happen. For example, in Asia animal protein consumption increased 225 percent per person between 1961 and 2007. While such rates are unlikely to continue, developing countries will experience the greatest increases in meat consumption in the future.
However, the United States is still top of the meat eating pile, consuming 30 times more meat per person annually than the bottom ranking meat-eating country – India. Half of the United States’ land, 80 percent of its freshwater and 17 percent of its fossil energy is spent on food production.
Global livestock production is already responsible for about 12 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, of which cattle make up 65 percent. This is because cattle are ruminants – mammals which get nutrients from plants by fermenting them in their stomachs prior to digestion. The fermentation process produces methane and carbon dioxide which the animal then emits.
But in order to meet overall food demands in 2050, the world will have to produce 60 percent more food than it does now. At the current trend, that means more land, more cattle and more greenhouse gas emissions. It’s apparent that meat production and its consumption is increasingly unsustainable.
Hence, meat grown in a lab.
One of the options
Mark Post’s team at Maastricht University expects a lab-grown burger to cost around $10 once production is scaled up. Because of this price point, the team thinks the burgers will initially be a restaurant product, before output is scaled up and rolled out in supermarkets several years later.
Post believes that lab-grown burgers will be in restaurants in five years and in supermarkets in ten. However, it is estimated that a $160 million investment is needed to make lab-grown meat for the mass market.
Since revealing the lab-grown burger in 2013, the Maastricht University team have been working on adding myoglobin, which gives beef its red color and iron content. They have added fat after criticism that the burger wasn’t juicy enough and they have eliminated fetal bovine serum from the lab process, as it requires a large number of calves. They have worked to make the entire procedure more efficient so it can be scaled up for industry.
In theory you could make hundreds of thousands of burgers from one sample from one cow. Because cells replicate exponentially, it takes 10 weeks for Post’s team to make just two burgers but in 12 weeks they could make hundreds of thousands of burgers if they had the resources. This means humans could reduce the number of cows globally from about 1.5 billion currently to just the tens of thousands necessary to keep cow populations genetically healthy.
At the moment, Maastricht University is just focusing on lab-grown beef burgers because they are one of the most popular meat products, and therefore one of the most marketable.
From a sustainability point of view there is also the most to gain as cattle produce more methane and it takes far more feed to get 1kg of beef compared with other livestock, poultry and fish. However, Post says as long as an animal has muscle-specific stem cells – which mammals, birds, and fish do – then it should be possible to grow other variants of meat in a lab.
Lab-grown meat also reduces food and water demands. Post says that the best way to help the environment would be for everyone to switch to a plant-based diet but that the behavioral change required in a short amount of time “we have left” would be “too much to ask.”
He says it’s likely that the technology will be embraced by developing countries as much of the process will be automated.
“It doesn’t require a whole educational system and years of setting up that system and training people to make this happen.”
That’s why Post thinks we need to bank on several solutions – and one of those is cultured meat.
“As far as I can see, it is one of the technologies that has the potential for us being able to still cherish our meat eating behaviors without the negative consequences,” he says.