Clean meat may be coming to a store near you
“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.” — Winston Churchill, 1931
When Winston Churchill issued this theoretical observation 86 years ago, he was suggesting a number of questions that are still being asked today. Why raise a whole steer if what you want is a steak? Why breed a pig if you’d like a pork chop? Why hatch a chicken if you want buffalo wings? Sometime in the not-too-distant future, we may well “escape the absurdity.”
Perhaps you’ve heard about the $330,000 hamburger patty. It was produced in 2013 by Dr. Mark Post and his fellow scientists at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, the first such product made exclusively from “clean meat.” The burger was cooked, eaten, and judged at a news conference in London. Food critic Hanni Ruetzler from the Future Food Studio stated:
“There is really a bite to it…. I didn’t really know how juicy it would be, but there is quite some intense taste…. It’s really something to bite on and I think the look is quite similar.” She added that, even in a blind study, she would judge the product to be meat rather than a soybean product. In fact, it really is meat, not a product synthesized from vegetable protein. However, it’s not grown “on the hoof.” This may be bad news to cattle ranchers, but it’s good news to environmentalists.
Most of us are unaware of the fact that the production of the meat that we eat has huge environmental costs. According to Global Meat News, 70 percent of the world’s agricultural land is currently used for animal pasture. Another 10 percent of earth’s land is needed to produce grains that are used exclusively for animal feed. So, about four-fifths of every acre of land is given over to putting beef, pork, mutton, or chicken on our tables.
According to Michael Renner of the Worldwatch Institute’s United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, beef production is the worst environmental offender. He says it is the most resource-intensive production, requiring three to five times the amount of land as pork or chicken to produce equivalent protein. He makes the following point: “Beef production alone uses about three-fifths of global farmland, but yields less that 5 percent of the world’s protein.”
The Real Meal Deal points out that 40 percent of all the world’s grain harvest is used to feed livestock, “leaving those in developing countries who rely on grain and can afford nothing more facing malnutrition or even starvation.” Its publication, “Tackling Food Waste, Food Poverty & Climate Change,” states, “It’s a sobering fact that around 80 percent of the starving children in the world live in countries where grain is diverted to feed livestock in order to fuel the meat industry….”
In the 21st century, most of us are beginning to realize that water scarcity presents one of our biggest challenges. One-fifth of the world’s population dwells in areas where water is scarce, and more than 10 percent do not have access to safe drinking water. Yet, producing meat takes a tremendous amount of water. The Real Meal Deal states, “At the top of the table is beef, requiring 15,000 liters (3,963 gallons) to produce just 1kg (2.2 pounds).”* By contrast, it takes less than 1,057 gallons of water to produce 2.2 pounds of wheat, or 75 gallons of water to give us 2.2 pounds of potatoes.
Additionally, the raising of livestock is one of the greatest industry-specific sources of water pollution. In the western U.S., cattle and sheep production are principal causes of water pollution; in the eastern U.S., it’s pork production. In both cases, the contamination arises from an intense use of fertilizer, especially nitrogen, that is used to increase animal feed. More pollution results from the storage and disposal of animal waste.
The grazing of livestock often leads to soil erosion, and that means rainfall doesn’t soak into the land. When the runoff reaches streams or rivers, it dumps polluting elements, which then kill fish and other aquatic life. Also, livestock production is a major cause of greenhouse gases, particularly methane.
Although people try to ignore cow belching and flatulence, we need to be mindful of the fact that the animals produce more methane than the burning of vegetation, gas drilling, or coal mining. The Real Meal Deal points out that livestock is responsible for “around 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, compared to 13 percent from the entire transport sector.”
And all of this has an impact on human health. According to the Real Meal Deal, “Cutting the amount of meat we eat reduces our risk of chronic preventable conditions such as cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.”
Cultured meat, which is increasingly being known as “clean meat,” is the latest innovation in food technology. Writing for Munchies, Gigen Mammose informs us that “multiple studies … indicate that both organic animal-based meat and conventional non-organic animal-based meat is swimming in bacteria, like salmonella … and E. coli.” Clean meat, which is grown in a culture, has none of these problems. Additionally, it contains no added hormones or antibiotics.
Clean meat starts with stem cells taken from the animal. These are nourished with protein to promote tissue growth. The process then follows a procedure that simulates the animal body part (principally muscle) during normal development. Once this process has been started, it would be theoretically possible to continue producing meat indefinitely without introducing new cells from a living organism, like the ongoing process of San Francisco Sourdough bread starter. Mammose says that the process is very similar to that by which yogurt is produced and that when “clean meat is actually commercialized and sold, it will be grown in a factory that looks an awful lot like a brewery.”
By the way, that first cultured meat burger was like any other prototype: ridiculously expensive. However, Dan Kedmey, writing for Time in 2015, claimed that the price was down to about $12. Tyson Foods and Memphis Meat are both on the ground floor of this innovative industry. And, now that Memphis Meat has financial backing from billionaires like Richard Branson and Bill Gates, the cost is expected to drop and be commercially competitive in the near future.
* Parentheses added.