Between 2011 and 2020, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development projects that the demand for meat will increase by 8 percent in North America, by 7 percent in Europe and by 56 percent in Asia.
Vertical Farming is certainly part of the answer to our global food scarcity question, but what will the future of raising livestock look like?
As our global population increases, so will our demand for space and our demand for food.
Arable land is decreasing, and humanity will need to find alternative farming methods to sustain the agriculture and livestock that sustain us.
Circular agricultural methods like Vertical Farming have enormous potential to help feed our growing global population using limit space and sustainable methods. For now, however, the technology is limited to producing only certain kinds of leafy greens and not large scale grains or animal products that also form the basis of a well-balanced human diet.
What’s Wrong with How we Raise Livestock?
Raising livestock requires land and water, which are both fundamental resources that are becoming more and more limited. Industrial farming practices like maintaining animals in close quarters reduce the amount of space required for raising livestock.
This technique alleviates some of the costs, but it also raises the risk for contamination and epidemics. In addition to potentially encouraging the inhumane treatment of animals, these sanitation concerns also necessitate the use of antibiotics. Not only do antibiotics in raising livestock augment veterinary and care costs for meat producers, but also contribute to antibiotic resistance in both livestock and humans, therefore exacerbating a public health issue.
Another health concern linked with meat consumption and the heme elements that it contains is the rise in risks of colon and breast cancers.
Furthermore, growing numbers of livestock like cows, pigs, and even chickens produce methane, which is a greenhouse gas.
Can I Grow Your Order?
In 2013, Mark Post and his team from the University of Maastricht managed to create an artificial burger from cow stem cells in the lab. In a study funded in part by the Dutch government, the team’s goal in creating the “laburger” is to help “meat” growing demand for food worldwide while limiting the need for animal handling or vast amounts of land and water.
Then, in 2015, US Company Memphis Meats announced the first lab-grown meatball.
Making a Laburger seems similar to making yogurt: both require a culture to start the process. For the Laburger, strands of muscle or stem cells are taken from the animal. The cultures are then placed in a nutrient medium enriched with growth factors, amino acids and hormones to promote the development of healthy tissues. Antibiotics and antifungal agents are also added to the nutrient solution to prevent contamination.
Lab-grown meat can also be produced without heme elements, potentially reducing the risk of certain cancers associated with meat consumption.
But, does lab-grown meat offer a viable alternative to current practices of raising livestock?
1. Quality is a Problem
Although lab-grown meat may look like the real thing, it is basically a patty of muscle cells without much taste. While Post’s method produces something that looks like ground meat, muscle fibers alone cannot replicate the flavor, juiciness, tenderness or color of a real burger. For now, these quintessential qualities of meat can only come from fat cells in adipose tissue, blood vessels like capillaries and connective tissue.
Memphis Meats, on the other hand, shows that taste technology may be making improvements, but current Laburger technology overall does not seem to offer a viable alternative to traditional methods of raising livestock.
2. Quantity is a Problem
It is still not possible to mass produce lab-grown meat without large areas being dedicated to the process. If producing meat in a lab is meant to eliminate the need for vast amounts of land required for raising livestock, then the large labs need to mass produce meat alternatives does not solve the issue.
3. Still Animal-based
Although the meat is grown in a lab, the process still sources from animals. Whether from animal tissue directly or from stem cells indirectly, the fact that lab-grown meat requires an animal sample does not eliminate ethical concerns associated with eating meat, nor does it completely eliminate the costs of maintaining the livestock as samples.
4. Costs are Still too High
Aside from the ethical or religious reasons for not eating meat, the cost of meat still makes it inaccessible to many. Meat consumption is historically linked with an increase in status, and is still considered a luxury for most. It’s true that the cost of lab-grown meat has dropped over the last few years from the $325,000 required to produce Post’s artificial burger to as little as $11.00 per patty. But, will lab-grown meat prove to be significantly less expensive to produce for companies and to purchase for consumers?
5. Doesn’t Eliminate Need for Antibiotics
Post’s method, like current industrial farming and livestock practices, includes antibiotics. While it may not exacerbate antibiotic resistance, Post’s process does not present a viable alternative to the use of antibiotics in food production.
Despite ethical and religious reasons for not eating meat, humans have arguably evolved around the practice of catching and eating meat. While we are omnivores, our eyes are positioned in the front of our head because we evolved as hunters instead of on the sides of our head like a deer or rabbit or other prey.
As we evolved, we learned to cook our catches. First and foremost, grilling helped us to reduce the risk of foodborne illness and in turn, improve our life spans. Secondly, cooking meat meant spending less time chewing. Cooking in general lend to improved digestion and better assimilation of nutrients, and perhaps promoted higher cognitive development.
It’s clear that meat is a fundamental part of our evolutionary development and our social history. It’s becoming clear that conventional practices of raising livestock require large quantities of land and water, and potentially contribute to a growing public health issue.
Reducing meat consumption is one option, but next-gen carnivores are eagerly awaiting any meaty alternatives.