As the global middle class increases, the global consumption of meat also surges. The world’s largest consumers of meat will only eat more animal protein. Throughout the world, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that global meat production needs to increase from the current 200 million tons annually to 470 million tons by 2050 to meet the needs of a growing population. Add the grisly statistic that the average American eats anywhere from 7,000 to 16,000 animals (if you include fish, mollusks and bivalves) in his or her lifetime, and one can image a bevy of concerns from animal welfare to human health and, of course, the meat industry’s environmental impact.
Now some Silicon Valley types say laboratory meat, often called cultured meat (or even in-vitro meat), can both reduce animal suffering and the amount of land and resources needed to produce meat. But this nascent industry faces two massive hurdles. First, there is scale, as seen in the much ballyhooed $330,000 Dutch petri-dish burger and the $18,000 lab-grown Memphis Meats meatballs. Those costs will rapidly fall, however, if there is a proven market and technology can become more efficient, as we have seen with computers, mobile phones and even organic produce.
But the larger challenge is getting consumers past the “yuck” factor, conjured by images of an army of Dr. Frankensteins in white laboratory coats injecting stem cells and who knows what else in the pursuit of tissue engineering perfection.
According to an article GFI posted last week, “clean meat” is a more accurate description of animal protein made without animal husbandry or animal slaughter. GFI makes the case that clean meat is analogous to clean energy – both terms impart the desired outcome of producing these resources, without the environmental or social impacts. Furthermore, “cultured” or “laboratory” meat is not an accurate description of how this meat is produced. After all, we do not refer to Ritz Crackers or Boca Burgers as “laboratory” food, though clearly those products were first tested in kitchens, or more succinctly, corporate laboratories. “Cultured” also does not quite work, as we are not talking about kimchee, pickles or yogurt.
GFI points out that when these meat products are mass-produced, they will be manufactured in giant fermenters within factories that will resemble a brewery more than a slaughterhouse. Of course, marketing these products as “fermented meats” is an obvious non-starter.
The argument GMI makes is logical, and the industry is wise to get on this now before decades, even centuries, of consumer bias settles in. The challenge, however, is that plant-based materials already have a huge advantage in the race to reduce meat consumption. Let’s start with condiments: Hampton Creek has egg-free mayo and other products that taste great and are competitively priced at retailers such as Target. Beyond Meat has long offered vegan chicken strips that arguably taste just as good, or even better, than the “real” thing and at a fair price. And Impossible Foods’ garish “Bloody Burger” has even landed on the menu in New York City’s Momofuku empire.
So GFI, along with clean meat companies such as substitute chicken hopeful SuperMeat, have a steep hill to climb. But if we as a society are going to accomplish this Herculean task of producing more for a growing world with less resources, then clean meat will have to be part of this pesky equation.
Image credit: KOMUNews/Flickr
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.