The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the global meat production will double from 2000 to 2050. The reasons behind are two-fold:
- The world’s population growth is expected to settle around 9 billion in 2050.
- The global GDP is estimated to quadruple towards 2050.
It’s obvious that more people means more mouths to feed, but less obvious is the fact that meat demand grows with income: As peoples’ wealth increases so does their taste for meat. In fact, this economic growth is the main driver behind our 100% increase in meat consumption.
Inefficient meat machines
We humans have since the beginning agriculture used livestock (cattle, sheep, pigs etc) to produce the meat we eat. As biological machines, they are capable of turning plant-protein into digestible animal protein. These machines were, however, not evolutionarily designed to be our food and thus they are very inefficient. Livestock production currently accounts for 70% of all agricultural lands, covers 30% of all land surface on the planet and emits greenhouse gasses at the same rate as our transport industry. Fortunately, a new technology is about to change that.
Clean meat (meat produced from stem cells) is predicated to revolutionize (or disrupt, if you will) the entire meat industry and scientists at Oxford University estimate that clean meat will produce 96% fewer greenhouse gasses, use 45% less energy, 96% less water and to up 99% less arable land than conventional meat production. And there is more: With live stock currently accounting for more than 60% of all antibiotics used, clean meat could play an important role in our fight against anti-microbial resistance by
A 100 years from idea to market
One of the first people to describe the inefficiency of our meat production was Winston Churchill when he in 1931 published “Fifty years hence”.
“Fifty years hence, 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
Though Churchill was right, it did take scientists a little more than 50 years to realize his dream. It happened in 2013, when a team of Dutch scientists lead by Mark Post teamed up with Google co-founder Sergey Brin to showcase the first ever clean meat hamburger. Two independent judges tasted the burger and deemed it “okay” — for a hamburger. The meat consisted of roughly 20.000 muscle fibers, took 8 weeks to produce and cost €250.000.
That was in 2013. Since then several companies have entered the clean meat arena. Memphis Meats, a Silicon Valley-startup, revealed in 2017 the world’s first clean poultry, an achievement that caught the attention of several investors, including Cargill, Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Kimbal Musk. This year they managed to raise $161 million in funding for a total of more than $180 million.
Other companies such as the Dutch Mosa Meats and Israeli SuperMeat are also at the forefront of the clean meat revolution and other companies are following suit.
The technique might be a proof-of-concept, but there are still several hurdles to overcome before clean meat can hit the shelves. As the judges in 2013 pointed out, clean meat is currently produced solely from muscle cells (no fat cells) and thus it tastes quite bland. Furthermore, the muscle cells are cultured in a growth medium based on FBS (fetal bovine serum) which is both too expensive and inconsistent for scaling/mass production and it also raises ethical concerns for companies planning to access the vegan marked.
Clean meat will require further research to reach its true potential. In the body, oxygen and nutrients are transported to all cells through blood vessels, making multi-layered organs possible. Current scaffolding techniques are, however, not capable of mimicking this transport system in vitro which is why clean meat to date only include minced meat. If (when) scientists and engineers solve this problem, T-bone steaks and meat alike will be within reach. For the exotic meat eater, it’s also worth noting that this technique requires only a small and harmless muscle biopsy that can — in principle — be taken from any animal. There’s a reason why some clean meat enthusiasts are preparing for clean shark, tiger and panda meat in the future: It’s coming.