Future food

Cooking a five-ounce burger is not the typical way to enter global headlines, but then again, the slightly charred beef served up to the world media on Monday, was no ordinary piece of meat.

Assembled from tiny pieces of cow muscle, that have been cultured from stem cells and grown in a laboratory, Dr Mark Posts painstakingly created ‘petri-burger’ was designed to show in vitro meat can be a reality.

“Lets make proof of concept and change the discussion from ‘this is never going to work’ to ‘well we actually showed that it works…’” Dr Post claimed. The process itself was an international effort, and technically tricky. Post has repeatedly postponed the petri cook off since November 2010. To complete the burger researchers first isolate embryonic or adult stem cess from a healthy cow or chicken and induce them to multiply in a ‘growth serum’ on a plastic dish. The cells are then forced to differentiate and create primitive muscle fibres. These fibres need to be anchored to develop tension, to ‘exercise’ the protein, and eventually they begin to resemble muscle tissue from which the burger will be compiled.

Not surprisingly this time intensive method costs- clocking in at a cool €250 000 for this one burger- so in a time of global economic austerity, can such a scientific method be justified, just to make ‘proof of concept’. To lavish such expense on the creation of one ‘bland’ burger seems a little self indulgent and even smacks of misallocated funding; prioritising the pursuit of science above key social issues. However the attention grabbing headlines focused on cost and taste fail to strike at the crux of the issue. What wider implications can in vitro burgers have? Why grow meat in a petri dish, not on a pasture?

Presently 70% of the world’s agricultural land and 8% of the world’s water supply is devoted to a 60 billion strong heard of livestock, bred for consumption. This heard are also claimed to contribute to anywhere between 18 and 50% of methane emissions. The UN’s report ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’ collated these issues as potential concerns in 2006. It was by no means the first. In 2011 a study in the Journal ‘Environmental Science and Technology’ demonstrated full-scale production of cultured meat could greatly reduce water, land and energy used by current farming methods. In vitro meat has the potential therefore, to relieve the strain on key global resources.

Advocates of full scale cultured meat purport that such environmental arguments will only gain traction as worldwide demand for meat increases. Growing middle class populations, in China and elsewhere, will spearhead demand from a rising global population as more people seek out what was once a luxury commodity. Globalization further nurtures this demand as the means to get vast, inexpensive quantities of flesh to the new, growing market, multiply. The UN Food and Agriculture organisation forecast a 70% rise in demand for meat worldwide by 2050. There are of course means to cram more animals onto more land, feed them faster, grow them quicker, the problem is the resources used to raise the livestock are all ready stretched, the environmental concerns already many, and both problems are set to become acute under increase pressure. Within 40 years the demand for beef is still set to outstrip production.

In purely economic terms, it may be time to consider an alternative method to supply. Google founder Sergey Brin puts this succinctly, “There are basically three things than can happen going forward. One is we’ll all become vegetarian. I don’t think that’s really likely. The second is we ignore the issue and that leads to continued environmental harm. And the third option is we do something new”. In vitro meat offers such a new path simultaneously appeasing animal welfare and environmental concerns. It could theoretically release resources, encourage better, less intensive farming techniques and shift focus to quality not quantity and supply demand.

A cost advantage over conventional meat should also appear. As Hanna Tuomisto stresses (her thesis at Oxford compared environmental impacts and profitability of various farming systems) “it’s all about the conversion of feed to meat”. Cultured meat production is simply a more efficient manufacturing process; only the meat is produced and not all the other parts. In vitro meat has the capacity to reduce cost to produce and simultaneously reduce the resources expended on the product. Naturally at this point the technology is new, the efficiency is bad and the cost is high. But as with all products- penicillin to pencils- the cost will come down as technology, research and understanding develop.

At this point it is worth noting, for many, turning a natural food source into a lab grown substance is distasteful, even wrong. It seems to go against the ‘eat local, organic, or natural’ campaigns that similarly focus on sustainability and good health. The ‘in vitro meat technology’ uses too many hormones and encourages a strange disconnect between food source and end user. But this is a narrow perspective that overlooks the wider global implication of a new, sustainable protein source.

According to the world Health Organisation, of nearly 7 billion people in the world nearly 1 billion are undernourished or starving and this is despite the world producing enough food to feed the human population twice over. When this is partnered by the facts we feed one third of grain grown to livestock, and provide 25% of the worlds land surface to 1.5 billion cattle, the question has to be raised: can we justify the production of meat by the current process?

There is a food divide: on the one side high income countries have access to diverse, nutritious food; on the other, low income countries, Dr Tara Garnett of the Food Climate Research Network claims, “face a lack of dietary diversity, more based on tubers, and critically no mirco nutrients”. Whilst it is simplistic to suggest a diet cannot be fully nutritious without meat, it is the division in the allocation and access to it that is of issue. If there is a viable alternative to lower the environmental damage caused by livestock farming- an impact often felt most strongly on lower income countries- higher income states have a moral responsibility to explore it.

It is the worlds rich that consume the most meat, in the UK 70% of our diets are made up of the stuff.  This demand will grow, but so is the need for food across the globe. Alex Renton, author of Planet Carnivore says ‘we can feed 9 billion people in 2050 but we cant feed them on the current amount of animal products that the rich world uses at the moment. It is easy to be flippant about the bland taste or the lack or ‘natural process’ used to make an in vitro burger but it may prove to have greater social significance. The technology could be considered a means to deliver protein more sustainably, more ethically and to those in need. Given it is unlikely for the world to neglect meat and become vegetarian but a request to balance the economic value and environmental value in terms of land space of meat and the genuine functional value it could provide to feed the worlds hungry.

By Seonaid Hyslop-Parsons 

Tags: , , , ,

Categories: International politics

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