Meat eating is a conversation that comes up a lot in our family. We’re flexitarian in that we haven’t ruled out all meat and dairy, but I cook vegan by default. My daughter, who is seven and who I suspect speaks for millions, recently summed up her position with the question “can’t we just be vegans who sometimes eat chorizo?”
The conversation has gone another round recently because we’re at home over Christmas. We’ve got full control over the menu, possibly for the first time. In debating the various options, and the ethics of each of them, one thing we’ve agreed on is that we’re looking forward to cultured meat.
You may remember the first news stories about this in 2013, when the world’s first cultured beef burger was served. No animals were slaughtered. The beef was grown, one strand at a time, in a lab. The burger cost a quarter of a million Euros and it was a taste of the future.
Numerous companies have sprung up to serve this new line in biotechnology. There are firms working on replicating milk, eggs, fish, and a variety of different meats. A company called Perfect Day are working on ice cream and cheese made without having to milk a cow. All of these companies rely on existing food techniques such as fermentation, but charged with advances in bioscience that allow them to identify the key proteins and engineer bacteria to produce them.
From that first burger just seven years ago, the first cultured meat product was licenced in Singapore this year. A restaurant is now serving chicken bites to curious consumers, making it the first time that cell-based meat has been available to the general public. It is still a demonstration project rather than a business venture just yet, but commercial viability is on the way. Memphis Meats, whose meatballs appear above, raised $161 million early in 2020 and show the kind of investment that is being made in the sector.
Why bother? Because animal products can be potentially created without animal cruelty. It could reduce carbon emissions by as much as 96%, and with potentially just 1% of the land footprint of ranched beef. Meat could be healthier, free from contaminants, disease or antiobiotics. If it is done at scale, it may eventually be cheaper.
Of course it is simpler to solve environmental and health problems by just eating less meat and dairy. Anyone can choose to eat differently and start today. But making a global difference that way relies on billions of people choosing to do something they don’t want to do. I seriously doubt that it will happen in time to make a difference to the climate and biodiversity crises.
No technology is neutral, and there are downsides to cultured meat. It is one more step down the road of nature disconnection, though in consumer societies the connection between meat and a living animal is already strained beyond anything our ancestors could imagine. It may also favour large companies who can get economies of scale. Investors in Memphis Meats include some giants like Cargill and Tyson Foods. Small farms that raise livestock might not be able to compete, compounding the decline of farming and the rural economy. So cultured meats could be devastating to farming as it is currently understood – one recent report predicts that the US livestock industry will be bankrupt by 2030.
This could be one of the big stories of the coming decade, and it will bring its share of heartache. As with the oil and coal industries though, the right response will not be to rally in support of incumbent industries that are unsustainable and destructive. The right approach is to focus on people and manage the change – a just transition, and one that ensures that nobody is left behind.
Come 2030, perhaps all the turkeys will be pardoned. Maybe the Christmas ham will come from a factory, not a farm and a suffering pig. There might be cream and custard and cheese that did not involve dairy cows. In the meantime, we’ll be experimenting with a vegetarian Christmas food this week – with just a little bit of chorizo, to go on top of a pizza at some point.