People love meat: OK not a universal truth in our modern society, but for the longest time it is hard to deny that that has been the general consensus for most of human history. We learned to hunt for our food, and then later, after we became a little smarter and lazier, we domesticated the bigger, friendlier, and most fucking fecund species of animal, and ever since, our appetite for meat has never been sated.
Meat has long been a staple part of a lot of our diets, but for most humans in history, meat was a luxury product. This all changed in the the 1960s when meat consumption increased dramatically, and to keep up with this new demand, the way that we rear animals for food has had to change(1). No more smallholdings or sprawling cattle ranches; meat is now made to be mass-produced in huge warehouses of animals whose development has been optimised for growth and quick turnover(2). We have commoditised the life of these animals, with very little regard for their health or wellbeing, or the wider socio-environmental impacts. Improvements in farming technology and changes in economic status have allowed for a shift in our behaviour, and perceptions of what a meal should consist of and what we expect from our diets. With meat no longer being considered a luxury food item, eaten only on special occasions, but now a societal expectation, with meat being affordable enough for most households to have for multiple meals every day.
With meat no longer being considered a luxury food item, eaten only on special occasions, it is now a societal expectation, with meat being affordable enough for most households to have for multiple meals every day.
And, while we are certainly starting to hear a greater number of voices speaking out for ethically and responsibly sourced food production, as well a boom in those who have decided to drastically change their eating habits by shifting to vegetarian or vegan diets, globally this has made little to no impact on the amount of meat being produced, with meat production being projected to rise by 70% by 2050(3).
With the cost of meat production ever decreasing, and more countries experiencing increasing financial stability, they see eating meat as a sign of affluence and what citizens from developing nations should aspire to, to bring themselves more in-line with the eating habits of European countries and the Americas that are now perceived as the norm. (countries examples- African countries other???)
However, there is an undeniable truth, that many of us (myself included) choose to ignore, that eating meat is one of the most self-indulgent activities we do as a species, especially those of us in developed nations where food insecurity is less of a concern and we have the privilege of choice. In the most apparent way, choosing to eat meat is somewhat of a cruel choice, and no matter how ignorant a person is about the meat manufacturing process, almost all of us know that a living creature had to die so we could have our pound of flesh! Determining to what degree an animal suffers and what we should deem as acceptable is a much longer discussion for another time perhaps. But another, less tangible impact, of meat production is the increased strain we put on the environment by dining further up the food chain. Generally speaking, as you move up the food chain, the less efficient the exchange of energy becomes. With some very rough maths, through the process of surviving, only approximately 10% of the energy taken in through the consumption of calories is transferred into the body’s stores, so if it takes 10 kg of grass to make 1kg of cow, it will take 10kg of cow to make 1kg of human: generally speaking! Eating meat is super inefficient, with nearly 60% of the available arable land being used for beef production, which contributes to only 2% of the global calorific intake (4). Using this much arable land to grow crops to feed livestock does seem somewhat foolish. And this inefficiency is costing us, with pastoral farming and meat production contributing to 14.5 % of human-driven climate change(5).
But this is old news. We all know that we have to change our habits for the greater good of the planet. But alas, habit and cultural expectations do not change easily, especially when it comes to policing people’s choices. But what If there was an alternative? Well recently there has been a steady rise in the sale of alternative “meat-free” food products(6), that ever increasingly claims that you can’t taste the difference between a veggie burger and the real thing. But what if you are not looking for a meat substitute? but a sustainable and cruelty-free way of having your cake and eating it too (a meat cake?).
Well, with the development of lab-cultured meat, there may be a way to grow meat in a petri dish. This is done by collecting animals’ cells- most of the current research is focused on bovine cells: beef. By providing the appropriate conditions and growth medium for these cells to replicate in vitro, researchers have been able to grow a culture of beef meat (7). Although, as this meat lacks the complex structure of cell fibres and any associated fatty deposits to recreate the refined taste and texture of the finest ribeye steak, current cultured meat products mostly resemble the texture of ground or reconstituted meat with a bland taste. This is hardly the most mouth-watering description; but the fact that scientist are able to produce these meat products with a fraction of the environmental costs and without the need to slaughter any animals, but it’s a promising start.
There are now a number of business enterprises attempting to refine their Petri-dish patties, but it’s not just tastes and texture that stands in the way of lab-grown meat being added to the menu, but also its price tag. With the first meat patty, created by Dutch start-up Mosa Meat, costing a hefty 250,000 euros in 2013, it was an expensive process as the cells in these meat cultures needed to be fed on a serum consisting of animal blood and growth nutrients, a costly product that also negates the intent of the cruelty-free. However, steps have now been made by some industries that are reducing the amount of serum used, or are creating new cell cultures that can be grown using a broth of plant-based proteins (8). With scaled-up production lines and developing technologies, this high price has started to drop, but it still does not compare to the generally low costs of conventional meat products.
But even if these food science companies do manage to drive down the cost of their lab-grown meat and improve its taste and texture, the ultimate test will be if people would be willing to try it, and accept lab-grown meat into their diet. A recent study showed that while 72% of Australian “Gen Z”ers, express a significant concern about lab-grown meat(9), imagine trying to persuade the older generations! So perhaps the next step is some old-fashioned marketing to make sure that these lab-grown meat products taste good enough to persuade people to make the change. The proof is in the tasting!
1. Sans, P. and Combris, P., 2015. World meat consumption patterns: An overview of the last fifty years (1961–2011). Meat science, 109, pp.106-111.
4. Boucher, D.H., 2012. Grade A Choice?: Solutions for Deforestation-free Meat. Union of Concerned Scientists, Citzens and Scientists for Environmental Solutions.
5. Gerber, P.J., Steinfeld, H., Henderson, B., Mottet, A., Opio, C., Dijkman, J., Falcucci, A. and Tempio, G., 2013. Tackling climate change through livestock: a global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
9.Bogueva, D. and Marinova, D., 2020. Cultured Meat and Australia’s Generation Z. Frontiers in Nutrition, 7, p.148.