A question of sustainability in the face of a growing need for resilience within our food systems.

Climate change is a major global issue gathering a vast amount of attention. Temperatures are continuing to increase at alarming rates and human’s role in this can no longer be denied. The destructive impacts on natural and human systems are already evident. Food production is under risk in already food insecure areas – a risk that is only set to increase. Despite the SDG goal of no hunger by 2030, the number of undernourished people worldwide increased by 16 million people between 2016-2017 – this has been linked to climate-related shocks.

With more mouths to feed due to the ever growing population, food security is brought into question and the agriculture system is put under rising pressure to meet demands. By 2050, global population will surpass 9 billion people and the demand for meat is likely to be 70% greater than it is today according to the FAO. Both meat and staple crop prices are likely rise in response to this increase in demand. Here brings in the issue of food justice – only those who can afford to will be able to eat meat, with others not having the financial means to eat at all.

Attention is turning to farming intensification methods. These are same methods that currently cause great concern due to their environmental impact – livestock supply chains are responsible for a huge 14.5% of human-induced emissions. But how are we to reduce these emissions while maintaining supply for increasing demands?

Could ‘Clean Meat’ be the answer?

 

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A burger made from Cultured Beef. Source: David Parry/PA

Clean meat, formally referred to as the less appetising name of ‘in vitro meat’, is a ground-breaking technology hoping to revolutionise the global food system. A small number of cells are painlessly harvested via biopsy from the animal – be it cow, chicken, pig, turkey or kangaroo – in order to establish cell lines. These are effectively a ‘starter pack’ of clean meat consisting of different types of cells (muscle cells, fat cells, ect). The cells are then cultured in a nutrient rich media inside a bioreactor so that they can grow and multiply to become what we know as meat!

There are a number of challenges still present before clean meat can be rolled out in supermarkets as a viable alternative. At the moment, it is only possible to create ground meat as opposed to creating a ‘steak’. The use of bio-scaffolds is currently being researched in order to address this issue. Another major concern with clean meat at the moment is cost. Currently, it costs $40 per gram of ground clean meat produced, according to Memphis Meats – a considerable amount cheaper than even a couple of years previous. This needs to be significantly reduced before it can become a mainstream meat product sold in shops. Mosa Meats claims that they are aiming to release a $10 beef burger patty by 2020, with the hope that clean meat will be down at $1-2 per pound in the future – cheaper than any other animal meat on the market. To reach these targets the scale of clean meat production must develop to a new level – this means increasing efficiency, improving cell lines and optimising growth conditions within the bioreactors. Investors in clean meat seem to think this is possible – time will tell.

Although the challenges are many, the potential advantages of clean meat are also numerous:

Environmental: Clean meat has the potential to be a whole lot greener for the environment with estimates showing greenhouse gas emissions to be 4-22% that of conventionally produced meat, using 99% less land and 82-96% less water.

Health: Clean meat also boasts health benefits above conventional meat. Due to production taking place in a completely sterile environment, contamination of meat in slaughterhouses is no longer an issue. The need for antibiotics is also absent – a major issue in livestock farming currently, especially with the rise of antibiotic resistant ‘superbugs’.

Animal Welfare: The introduction of clean meat would hopefully decrease the need for farming intensification of livestock, likely meaning animal living conditions could greatly improve and many more animals could be saved from slaughter. 

But what will this mean to local livestock farmers? The introduction of clean meat has the danger of threatening the livelihoods of many livestock farmers. Perhaps this new competitor could persuade farmers to turn to more sustainable farming approaches, converting livestock land to arable land.

But it doesn’t seem natural!

A further challenge to gain acceptance is to overcome the “but it’s unnatural” reaction. Many surveys have been carried out to assess the attitudes towards clean meat. In a study carried out by Siegrist et al, it was found that the way in which clean meat was described to a participant greatly affected their views towards it – the labels of ‘in-vitro meat’ and ‘cultured meat’ were found to be problematic. Even with these labels avoided, less than 50% of participants said they would be willing to try clean meat. Perceptions of naturalness are crucial for acceptance of food and food technologies.

Even with people willing to try clean meat, it is another matter to presume that they will buy it in the supermarket week in week out. For this to happen, it will need to be cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and taste just as good, if not better, than meat straight from the animal.

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Mosa Meat hamburger. Credit: Mosa Meat

Clean meat has the potential to reduce the environmental impacts of our agriculture system, improve animal welfare, address growing public health concerns, and prevent a threatening future food crisis. The question is, can it overcome the various challenges in its way and become accepted by society as “natural”?