How clean meat could revolutionize our lives
6 minutes read
This statement is not easy to comprehend. You could not have suspected this, but meat as we know it may soon become obsolete. The slowly approaching revolution is likely to reform the global food and agribusiness industry evaluated at almost 12 trillion dollars (2018). If you are vegan or vegetarian you might not care about the meat itself but rather about quality of animal life which could also change for good. If your are carnivorous or omnivorous you might already breath heavily thinking “you are not going to take away my meat”, but no need to worry, at least not much. The shift is inevitable if humanity wants to prevail its high caloric demand which is forecasted by McKinsey analysts to grow by 70% until 2050 along with a massive 100% increase in crop demand both for human consumption and animal feed. To meet the mentioned needs we will need more than already established and well working solutions. If just like me, you are interested in what may soon land on your plate then this post, which was inspired by Paul Shapiro’s book called Clean Meat, is for you.
We love meat
That’s right. Or the be technically correct 99% of all people love meat. According to a research paper from 2010 only 75 million people in the world were vegan or vegetarian by choice. It is safe to assume that the majority of us wouldn’t mind to bite that juicy steak or devour the classic burger as long as we could afford it of course. Money is an important factor when it comes to meat consumption as countries which undergo an economic transition are likely to increase its meat demand along with wealth. This shouldn’t be surprising - in the past beef, lamb or turkey had always been a symbol of prosperity, eaten mostly by prosperous people while the rest could taste those specialities only during special occasions. Times have changed, but things stayed the same - the richer we get, the more meat we eat. The best example could be China where per capita consumption of meat has grown approximately 15-fold since 1961. This trend can be noticed on a global scale too, on average people ate around 43kg of meat per year in 2014 whereas in 1961 that number was only about 20kg. Even though changes in high-income countries don’t occur so fast with their meat consumption stagnating and even decreasing there is a large number of constantly growing countries especially in Asia and Africa where the demand for animal-based products will continue to grow rapidly.
Breaking the tradition
It’s not that the current farming methods are archaic. Actually they are the total opposite. Changes are taking place all the time with adoption of artificial intelligence for image recognition of crops, wide spread of autonomous robots that could handle complex agricultural task and precise sensors that monitor soil health, one could think that the industry is pushing its limits in terms of technology development. And no one is saying that all of this effort isn’t going in the right direction. These advancements are doing a great job in terms of maximazing the crop yield and automating mundane tasks to ease our lifes. The real problems are hard to deal with quickly - climate changes, growing population, shrinkning amount of space for future farming, high water usage or even tremendous volume of gasses produced by cattle which add up to the global warming effect in a real way. To tackle all of those issues we need to find a new solution and remodel our thinking about how we farm from the ground up. Luckily, there are some amazing visionaries who plan to revolutionize the industry and cure all of our problems. Their aspirations seem no lees grandiose as those of Elon Musk’s back when he was just starting SpaceX. Let’s hope they will be as successful.
So what might be the solution to all of our food problems?
Actually the more widespread name is cultured meat. The idea is to take a cell sample from a living and healthy donor animal, for example a cow. Then, provided with special conditions in a safe and clean lab environment these cells could quickly grow in number to produce actual meat that we are looking for. After all, what we consume is mostly animal muscle made from cell mass. You might not like the idea itself as it could seem strange to you at first glance and I understand that a lot of people wouldn’t be keen to try this artificially produced meat. The thing is that usually we don’t know the details of meat production business and if we knew how it actually looks, especially considering the animal slaughtering, we might not be so eager to continue eating it.
One of the pioneers in the clean meat industry is Dutch food technology company called Mosa Meat. They became famous back in 2013 when on a special event in London company’s Chief Scientific Officer Professor Mark Post unveiled the first ever lab produced and slaughter-free hamburger. The burger cost a whopping 250 000 euro but since then, Mosa Meat already managed to bring down the costs of producing cultured meat in a substantial way. The Dutch have big plans to scale up their production process, bring the prices even further down and come up with a ready product into market in a few years. Their actions could disrupt the meat business and inspire more people to follow the footsteps.
If you are still not convinced whether we could benefit from introducing cultured meat on the market, Mark Post from Mosa Meat says that the current projections expect that clean meat production will use up to 96% less water and generate 96% less greenhouse gas emissions. Along with that they are expected to use up to 99% of less land. The advantages are almost countless. Apart from lessening direct environment impact from meat production there is also the issue of production safety and overall purity of product. You must have heard about Mad Cow Disease or Salmonella. The latter comes from animal foods contaminated with feces from an infected animal. Salmonella bacteria cause much of the food poisoning in the world, including an estimated 1 400 000 cases of salmonellosis in the United States each year. What if you could have a 100% certainty that the meat you are eating is any bacteria free? Right now what happens is that you mostly have to believe that the product you’re buying will be safe for you, but even with the strict regulations in the industry you can never be sure. On the other hand, cultured meat could never be contaminated with animal feces since it grows without the actual animal. Growing flesh in a lab can seem offbeat at the beggining but the health benefits coming from this method are undeniable.
There is also the cost issue. Right now the cost of producing cultured meat on a global scale is still way too big for a regular consumer to even consider buying it. But as history shows with introduction of new inventions the prices at the beginning are usually from outer space. Heck, when MP3 players were introduced I bought a player with 128 megabytes of storage (around 30 songs) for a today’s cost of an iPod Touch with 32 gigabytes (250 times more - 7500 songs) of storage. You can imagine. Anyway, once the cultured meat costs will be brought down substantially and I firmly believe they will, the product might be cheaper than the real animal’s meat. Along with low price comes greater availability and possibly even solving the problem of hunger in under-developed countries since this clean product would still carry the same calories resource. Making it more accessible for mass adoption could result in alleviation of world’s constantly growing calories demand. Once the production process would be set to perfection, it could be possible to place the meat factories anywhere despite the weather conditions and amount of available resources.
Low price, great quality, guaranteed product safety and access to meat without killing millions of animals - these are the promises that cultured meat is trying to fulfill.
Long way to go
Even if cultured meat would make it to the market and be available to public there is still a very important question to be asked - will the consumers actually choose this product? As Paul Shapiro mentions in his book, buyers usually tend to consider features such as price, taste and convenience. Once the meat growing process will be optimized it might be possible to meet all client requirements but it will surely take some time before everyone will trust this emerging product. What we eat is one of the most ingrained habits so changing those customs could be hard. That is not the only problem. In order to be globally accepted by consumers, meat alternatives have to not just look like conventional meat, but also mimic its taste, texture and smell which is way harder to accomplish. Also in current situation it is extremely difficult to produce parts like steaks which owe its juiciness thanks to an intrisic mesh of blood veins carrying essential nutrients to every cell. The clean meat industry is only a few years old and is still yet to come up with solutions to all these problems but the potential of cultured version of animal products is really huge. I look forward to seeing how the agricultural market will change in the future and if the companies like Mosa Meat will be able to revolutionze our lives. If you find the topic interesting I encourage you to read Paul Shapiro’s book Clean Meat and learn more about what the food future may look like.