We have a problem on our hands: over the past 50 years, global meat production has almost quadrupled. And with it, we’ve seen serious environmental consequences.
In the words of the United Nations, the meat industry is one of the “most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global”. Livestock accounts for approximately 14.5% of all emissions – that’s more than all global travel combined.
A 2016 study found that cutting down on meat consumption in favour of more veggies could save 8 million lives by 2050, and cut greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds. But whilst the appetite for meat is decreasing in some of the heaviest meat-eating countries – including the USA, New Zealand and the UK – rapidly increasing demand in China and parts of Africa is likely to see overall meat consumption continue to soar.
Delicious Lab Burger
So is it time to end our love affair with meat? Well, not necessarily. For those of us who couldn’t countenance a life without hamburgers and hotdogs, there may be another way. ‘Lab grown’ meat could allow us to keep meat on our tables, without the devastating environmental cost.
The technique uses stem cells gathered from cow muscle tissue. Stem cells have the unique ability to develop into any kind of cell in the body, from blood cells to brain cells. In the laboratory, scientists can trigger the cow muscle cells to replicate, until they have enough to create muscle fibre and, eventually, a material similar to minced beef.
Sound icky? Well, the finished product – whilst not technically meat as we know it – reportedly looks, smells and tastes exactly like the real deal. In a 2013 taste test of lab-grown meat, food critics reported finding the meat almost indistinguishable from regular meat, if a little less juicy.
And it’s not just beef that’s getting the lab treatment. Stem cell techniques could also allow us to reproduce chicken meat, providing a substitute for another major source of global meat consumption.
Experts estimate that lab-grown meat could become available in supermarkets within the next 3-4 years, and that a ‘lab burger’ could eventually cost the same or even cheaper than a regular one. And what’s more, lab-grown meat could have a huge impact on combatting global warming.
Could Lab Meat Really Change The World?
A 2011 study found that lab-grown meat produces 96% less greenhouse-gas emissions, uses up to 99% less land, 96% less water, and 45% less energy than conventional meat.
And the benefits aren’t just environmental. Disease is currently a huge problem in the meat industry. Infections such as salmonella and E. coli are rife in the crowded factories that house farm animals. To prevent the spread of disease, animals are fed huge amounts of antibiotics. This practice helps infections to develop resistance to antibiotics, leading to antibiotic resistance: a serious threat to human populations.
Vegetarians and vegans could also rest easy eating lab grown meat, in the knowledge that the practice is virtually cruelty free. Were the new practice to become viable on a global scale, then the brutalities of large-scale factory farming could eventually become a thing of the past.
Of course, lab grown meat brings its own set of challenges. Many people may feel squeamish or anxious about consuming something that was grown in a laboratory rather than reared on a farm. And it will take time to bring down costs enough so that the new meat is readily available to most consumers.
But lab grown meat has huge potential, and offers us a way out of the environmental, ethical and medical issues associated with the existing meat industry. Whilst lab grown meat might not be for everyone, this innovation could help us to create a better world and keep meat firmly on the menu.
A version of this article was originally published in The Oxford Mail