Global demand for (and production of) meat has continued to surge, but meat as a food source is highly inefficient. If we are to sustain growing populations with growing appetites for meat, we need to act now.
The world consumes around 350 million tonnes of meat a year. This number is projected to increase further to 517 million tonnes by 2050.
Meat, however, requires more energy, water, and land to produce than any other food source. 77% of agricultural land is used for meat production, but meat contributes to only 17% of the global caloric supply. Beef, for instance, has an energy efficiency of only 1.9% (i.e. proportion of calories in its feed inputs that are effectively converted to animal product). On top of that, it is also a notorious source of greenhouse gas emissions, and a leading cause of both biodiversity loss and water pollution.
The need to alter our meat-heavy diets is an urgent one.
Replacing meat with “meat”
Lab-produced alternatives are one possible solution.
Plant-based meat substitutes, such as those from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, are created from plants, but engineered to look and taste just like real meat.
Cultured meat, which is grown from animal cells in a laboratory, on the other hand, is still essentially meat, but without the need to farm or slaughter any animals.
Each of these alternatives replicate “meat” with the hope of reducing the negative impact and resource-intensive requirements of traditional livestock production. Plus, consumers can still enjoy the satisfaction of a meat-like meal.
Optimism around the switch to artificial meat is high. Citing a trend towards less meat-focused lifestyles, consultancy firm AT Kearney predicted that by 2040, 60% of meat consumed will be from lab-grown or plant-based sources.
Seal of approval
In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Bill Gates, one of the most vocal supporters of alternative meat, called for wealthy countries to switch entirely to synthetic beef. While the comment remain controversial, some countries are beginning to take action.
China, as part of its carbon reduction efforts, has enacted a plan to cut its meat intake by 50%, encouraging citizens to limit meat consumption to just 40 to 75 grams a day. Evolving consumer perceptions, partly due to fears from the coronavirus and the African swine fever crises, have helped promote plant-based living and the adoption of fake meats in this meat-loving nation.
Authorities in Singapore have been vocal about their support for building a vibrant food technology scene. It recently became the first country in the world to officially approve the commercial sale of lab-grown meat, signaling the possibility of future approvals in other developed countries.
Questions about sustainability
While the future looks promising, questions remain about the long-term sustainability of lab-produced meat alternatives. Both processes still produce considerable carbon emissions – cultured meat through the large energy requirements of cell culture, and plant-based meat through its use of industrial crops which involve farming methods that destroy and release soil carbon.
Evaluating the long-term environmental impact of a shift from traditional meat to meat alternatives is also complicated. At present, there is still inadequate data to substantiate claims of their environmental benefits. Studies also need to go beyond a simple resource comparison to a deeper analysis of the entire life-cycle of food production – from the type of emissions released by each stage of the process, to the type of energy used and the source of ingredients – in order to truly assess the impact of meat alternatives.
For real impact to be achieved, there is also the issue of hitting critical mass. Can meat alternatives be produced at significant scale to feed enough people, and affordable enough to wean people off of traditional meats? Will people even want to eat meat alternatives?
No need to wait
Until such time that alternative meats tick all these boxes, there are little changes we can choose to make that can cumulatively amount to great impact. It doesn’t have to be as drastic as cutting out meat altogether. Given that 84% of vegans and vegetarians eventually abandon their diets, a less restrictive lifestyle that is practised by more people for longer may be just as effective.
Apart from keeping an open mind towards alternative meats, cutting even just 10% of our meat consumption, and practising little “rituals” like Meatless Mondays, can be great for our environment if more of us did it together.
Muralle, Eric. “Cultured Meat? This Could Create More Problems Than It Solves”, Eco-Business, https://www.eco-business.com/opinion/cultured-meat-this-could-create-more-problems-than-it-solves/
Other related sources:
Reid, Crystal. “China’s Appetite for Meat Fades as Vegan Revolution Takes Hold”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/09/chinas-appetite-for-meat-fades-as-vegan-revolution-takes-hold
Carrington, Damian. “No-kill, Lab-grown Meat to Go on Sale for First Time”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/02/no-kill-lab-grown-meat-to-go-on-sale-for-first-time