Our hunger for meat is growing. Can innovation satisfy it?

2022-03-02

 |  Biodiversity/Conservation

There’s nothing more mouth-watering than a juicy burger – except when it’s ruined by the sour taste of environmental catastrophe. Along with animal welfare and health reasons, climate change is a driving force for many plant-based eaters; reducing meat consumption is one of the most effective ways we can decrease our environmental impact as individuals. As tasty plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy continue popping up on grocery shelves, avoiding meat becomes easier and easier. Yet despite a rising trend in veganism, few North Americans follow this diet; most would prefer to stick to the classic burger, and they’re not going to give it up anytime soon. In fact, global demand for meat is only rising. Change-makers set on solving this pressing food issue are left with one choice: to embrace meat consumption – minus its ethical mess.

Cultivated meat, also known as cultured or clean meat, is grown in a factory. No animals are involved, except for one at the start of production: cells are harmlessly taken from an animal (for example, a cow) and grown in a large tank called a bioreactor. Fed with nutrient-rich broth, these cells multiply before being transferred to a smaller vessel. The cells are then structured into steaks, ground meat, or other familiar cuts of beef, with a texture and taste indistinguishable from farm-grown meat. The result: genuine beef, simply grown in a way that’s friendlier to the planet and animals.

Conventional animal agriculture is neither friendly to the planet nor the animals. Livestock rearing, particularly that of cattle, contributes 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and uses 2.4 x 1033 litres of water every year – a frightening amount in a world facing a water crisis. It’s also a significant contributor to habitat loss, as immense forestland is burned or bulldozed for pastures.

Not all cattle farming is harmful, however. Some practices, such as silvopasture and managed grazing, can even capture carbon by improving grassland diversity and soil health. And supporting small-scale, local farmers who treat their cows as what they are – living, sentient, beings – is something to be proud of. Yet intensive farming, which produces the bulk of the world’s beef, remains environmentally destructive and undeniably inhumane.

A test restaurant in Israel serves chicken that was cultivated a few feet away. Credit: SuperMeat. (Photo source: https://supermeat.com/manufacturing/ )

Cultivated meat would not only drastically cut land and water use, but also prevent public health crises emerging from animal agriculture. Industrial factory farms, which force animals to live in crowded and filthy spaces, are breeding grounds for disease. And those diseases are jumping to humans. While we struggle to cope with Covid-19, we’re generating the next potential plagues at large-scale. The attempt to control these microbes with excessive use of drugs is only creating a more alarming problem: antibiotic resistance.

There’s a gap between demand and reality, and companies are emerging around the world to address it. Most cultivated meat start-ups are focusing on chicken, the most consumed meat globally. For example, the first cultured chicken was sold in Singapore in 2020, produced by the American company Eat Just. Meanwhile, SuperMeat in Israel is currently serving their own chicken to the public in a test kitchen, with positive feedback. Although chicken is the most researched cell-based meat, some companies are targeting other meats as their primary products, including beef and seafood.

Guilt-free burgers are becoming a reality – why haven’t they hit the shelves yet?

Despite a boom in cultivated meat research over the last decade, the tech still hasn’t reached cost-effectiveness. A pound of cultivated chicken costs $7.70, over double the price of chicken you’d get at a big supermarket. A modeled scenario predicts that prices could drop to $2.57/lb by 2030 with significant advances in technology, but some critics only calculate a dead end for cultivated meat. One techno-economic analysis concludes that even after technological improvements, the cost still won’t be competitive with conventional meat prices. 

This is a disheartening analysis, but it shouldn’t be taken as prophecy; today we hold previously unimaginable innovation in our hands. With many researchers focused on the problem, there’s bound to be progress – especially if governments shift some of the billions of dollars subsidizing animal agriculture towards cultivated meat production.

The idea that cultivated meat could fill the world’s dinner plates is implausible, but this innovation is only one piece of the puzzle. Like all complex issues, our “meat problem” will need a mosaic of solutions. That might look like a mix of cultivated meat factories, sustainably managed pastures, and an increased shift towards veganism. One thing seems certain: conventional factory farms can no longer feed us – and never should have, in the first place.