Which scene do you think is more appealing? Lush green pastures, covering dozens of acres, filled with grazing cattle - or muscle cell culture, floating in a petri dish flooded with growth hormones, nutrients and stimulants. The end result of both: the beef burger you're going to chow down on for dinner. Easy decision, right?
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Not so fast - there’s more to this “lab meat” than it initially seems. In-vitro meat – grown from animal tissue in an indoor setting - has the potential to be just as palatable and tasty as the "real deal". The potential industry revolution has been garnering more and more attention in recent years: in 2011, PETA announced an award of $1 million to whoever managed to produce meat from cell culture which is as good as the meat from a whole animal (1). Though currently too expensive for the average person - a meat for a beef burger currently costs about £200,000 (2) - the costs will eventually drop, allowing those who find meat eating morally reprehensible finally have that steak they've been dreaming about for years.
But there is more than just an ethical benefit in replacing traditionally-grown red and white meat with the in-vitro variant. The live meat industry is a massive contributor to global environmental change; it is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, takes up 2/3 of agricultural land, and costs 2500-5000 gallons of water per pound of beef produced (3,4). Clearly, reducing our meat and dairy consumption is a simple but significant change that each individual could take to reduce one's carbon footprint. But in-vitro meat is an interesting alternative; the production method results in less greenhouse gas emissions, requires less energy and could reduce emissions at other points in the supply chain. A recent study by Tuomisto and de Mattos (5 - include a diagram, possible?) estimated that lab-grown meat would require 99% less land use, 82-96% less water consumption, 78-96 less greenhouse gas emissions, and 7-45% less energy per volume of pork, beef and sheep (poultry would require more energy but much less land and water). Though these figures are built on many assumptions, technological innovations could meet these targets. Meat appears to be back on the menu in our environmentally-turbulent world.
The possibilities of in-vitro meat do not end there. Meat could be produced in urban environments and delivered rapidly to food distributers and shops, reducing the eco-burden of shipping and transportation from the source of production. The monetary and energy costs of freezing the product would be reduced also, as excess fats and bone would not need to stored. More savings could be made by "vertical farming" - high rise buildings devoted to the indoor production of food stuffs in urban environments (6). These "food factories" aim to be as efficient as a normal ecosystem, recovering water by hydroponics and aeroponics. Though conceived of as being a means to locally source fruit and vegetables in cities or town, combining the concept with in-vitro meat culturing has the potential to curb the environmental impact of overall food consumption.
Reducing food wastage and the consumption of meat and dairy products is an effective way we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But unfortunately not everyone is willing to sign up for the vegetarian lifestyle for the sake of environment. In-vitro culturing gives us a chance of a future where environmental change is under control but the humble hamburger remains – even if it were grown in a test tube.
5. Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat ProductionEnviron. Sci. Technol., 2011, 45 (14), pp 6117–6123 Hanna L.Tuomisto and M. Joost Teixeira de Mattos