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Future Food

I was first introduced to the concept of laboratory-grown meat a couple of years ago. My son’s fifth grade glass was studying “foods of the future.” In response to the challenges of climate change and population growth, the class had identified two alternatives to our traditional diets: lab meat and insects. I have to say I was somewhat less than enthusiastic about either option, and the less said about eating insects, the better. The kids, however, were very excited and fearless to try something new that might protect the environment. It was inspiring, but unpalatable.

I came across lab meat again while speaking at the SXSW Eco Conference in Austin, Texas last fall.  I think the kids were on to something.

What is lab meat, or “cultured meat”, the term New Harvest, a non-profit dedicated to the incubation of these new technologies, prefers? According to New Harvest, “Cellular agriculture is the production of agricultural products from cell cultures. [It] allows us to make milk, eggs, meat, leather, fur, rhino horn, and any other animal products from cell cultures rather than from animals.”  

The basic insight is that we now know how to produce meat without the animal. You can think of an animal’s body as a machine designed to grow muscle from cells, but that doesn’t mean we need to continue to treat animals like machines. We can learn from these natural processes and duplicate them in a laboratory or factory, beginning with a cell culture, harmlessly taken from the animal. Once brought to scale, the meat production facility of the future will look like a brewery, filled with shiny steel tanks suitable for public tours, in contrast to the factory farm or slaughterhouse of today, that are, conspicuously, out of sight, out of mind.

Why do we recoil at this? One reason is that the meat and dairy products we eat come to us well packaged and clean. We don’t see how they were produced, and frankly, we don’t want to know. But ignorance is not always bliss.

Consider the egg, a staple of diets around the world and a symbol of the traditional family farm. Today, the vast majority of American eggs are produced on “battery farms,” where, according to The Humane Society of the United States, each hen is provided “67 square inches of cage space—less space than a single sheet of letter-sized paper on which to live her entire life.” As entomologist Dave Goulson puts it in “Filthy Flies,” a chapter in A Buzz in the Meadow (highly recommended, by the way): “These are among the most unpleasant places that man has thus far managed to create. If you’ve never been in one, count yourself lucky; continue to avoid the experience, and stop buying cheap battery-farm eggs. Battery farms are vast, dusty, foetid places.”

According to Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR), a new coalition of investors working to address the financial risks of the factory-farming system, approximately 70 percent of the world’s farm animals, and 99 percent of US farm animals, are now factory farmed. FAIRR points out that factory farming is the number one reason for the rapid spread of bird and swine flu, and is accountable for 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the US. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that overuse of antibiotics could threaten the achievements of modern medicine and lead to a “post-antibiotic” era, with significant risks to human health.

Livestock produce more global greenhouse gas emissions than the transportation sector. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) claims that ruminant livestock account for between 7 percent and 18 percent of global methane emissions from human-related activities. Our food-production systems are massive users of water, and leading contributors to deforestation. A recent study found that atmospheric emissions of agriculture-related ammonia, from livestock waste and nitrogen fertilizers, now exceeds the effects of fossil fuel combustion emissions on our atmosphere’s nitrogen cycle, contributing to soil acidification, decreased biodiversity, and changes to the chemistry of lakes and streams.

One hundred and ten years after the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which exposed horrific working conditions in slaughterhouses, workers are still exposed to dangerous and unhealthy working conditions. And, of course, there is the welfare of the animals themselves, many of which live their lives in strict confines, as meat-producing machines.

All of this is bad enough without considering that the entire enterprise is designed to produce food for human consumption.

What can cultured meat offer? New Harvest claims these technologies can produce more nutritious meat while dramatically reducing the environmental impacts, including greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and water and air pollution. It claims that cultured meat can be produced in a clean, controlled environment that should dramatically reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses. And unlike factory farms, which take vast amounts of acreage, cultured meat facilities can expand vertically. Imagine being able to eat a juicy burger without having to kill an animal.

Although we may be ten years away from seeing cultured meat in the supermarket, plant-based meat and dairy products are already on the shelves. I learned at the recent Ceres conference in Boston that General Mills has an investment in Beyond Meat, a company producing a variety of plant-based meat products. Kite Hill, sold at Whole Foods, makes milk, cheese and yogurt entirely from almonds; Hampton Creek’s “Just Mayo” uses a powder made from Canadian yellow peas instead of eggs; and Impossible Foods is working on a burger that tastes like beef, made from plants. This is not your standard veggie burger. Impossible Foods is substituting the basic building blocks of meat with proteins and nutrients taken from plants. It is a process that begins at the molecular level. According to a Wall Street Journal taste-test, it currently ranks with turkey burgers. Not quite there.

Why, you might ask, would anyone want to turn plants into meat, when we can simply become vegetarians, or better yet, vegans? What is the easiest and most direct path to a more sustainable food system: converting the vast number of the world’s meat-eaters to veganism, or providing a delicious burger that satisfies our desire for beef, with relatively no environmental impact? Plant-based meat is a bet on the latter path of least resistance. As Impossible Foods puts it on their website, “while creating the burger, we left a few things out: cholesterol, hormones, antibiotics, and slaughterhouse contaminants. We hope you understand.”

The biologist E. O. Wilson believes we need to permanently set aside half of the Earth for wildlife if we are to avoid a manmade mass extinction event on the scale that wiped out the dinosaurs. This idea requires us to rethink how we feed ourselves. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 26 percent of Earth’s ice-free land is used for livestock grazing. WWF claims that 25 percent of global land use, land-use change and forestry emissions are driven by beef production, including conversion of forests in the Brazilian Amazon. If we are to preserve biodiversity for its own sake, as well as for future generations, we must make some hard choices. The FAO reports that “globally, there is enough cropland to feed 9 billion in 2050 if the 40 percent of all crops produced today for feeding animals were used directly for human consumption.”

These technologies are in their early stages, and success is by no means guaranteed, but they’re getting closer every day. What will consumers think? Will these new products suffer because of the emphasis on their production methods, while traditional meats benefit from our illusions of how our food is actually raised? Will traditional food companies transform into some of the most sustainable companies in the world? And, I’m sure many will wonder about genetic engineering. To date, the technologies discussed here do not require genetic engineering. But will GMOs play a role in these technologies going forward, and can those risks be appropriately managed?

By the time my son and his classmates reach my age, the human population will be approaching 10 billion. If these people are going to eat, they are going to need a radically transformed food production system. The food of the future is coming, and I, for one, am ready.