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Cell Cultivated Meat- Will it Boost Food Security?

Winston Churchill spoke of a day when we would no longer need to raise whole animals for consumption. He believed that a time would come when we would simply grow the part of the animal we wished to eat. While we are still a far cry from living like the cartoon Jetson family, who pushed a button for robot generated food, cell cultivated meat is more than just dinner conversation, it could really be dinner!

It’s certainly adding dimension to discussions of food security and sustainable agricultural practices. Advocates and adversaries alike have questions about the role of cultured meat in the future.

It’s possible to grow animal cells in a lab and use them for food. It’s possible to order biologically engineered chicken nuggets at restaurants. But, does cell cultivated meat have the potential to bolster food security and feed the masses?

Cell Cultivated Meat and Environmental Sustainability

The process of extracting animal cells and growing muscle tissue inside of bioreactors has taken shape under a slogan of sustainability. Growing meat rather than raising meat is an option that reduces food waste and decreases demand on resources like water and land used for livestock or food crops cultivated for the purpose of feeding animals. However, cultured meat still grows by feeding off of nutrients. Should the industry continue to look for cost effective nutrient sources, it is very likely that even synthetic meat would still consume commodity grains and still rely on present agricultural practices.

Currently, a cow must consume 25 calories in order to produce 1 calorie of edible protein. Scientists in the field hope to change this ratio to 4 calories consumed per one edible calorie of protein. If, in the future, cultured meat were the primary source of animal protein around the globe this would make a significant impact on farming practices, emissions, and consumption of resources. But that future is very far off. Right now, cell cultivated meat makes up less than half of a percent of meat consumed in the world.  The process is a long way from significantly impacting current farming practices and reducing emissions.

Even if the industry grows, facilities will take up less land than farms and ranches do. And they would also make it possible to harvest healthy protein without slaughtering any animals; factors that keep cultured meat part of the sustainability conversation. Meat could be grown anywhere making it possible to produce synthetic options very near consumers and reduce transportation costs and emissions.

But the question of environmental impact also considers electricity. Large scale plants would pull huge amounts of electricity and, according to feasibility studies, only be an emissions reducing option if renewable energy sources like solar or wind are used. Even on a small scale, building a bioreactor facility is a costly venture reliant on significant infrastructure and constant power.

Will Synthetic Meat Solve Food Insecurity?

Brands like Good Meet and Africa’s Mzansi Meat intend for cell cultivated protein to grow into a solution to food insecurity. The risk of weather, disease, and catastrophe related supply chain disruptions would decrease if meat were grown rather than raised in every large city in the world.

Yet, the EU has banned the production and sale of synthetic meat declaring it an enemy to culture and destructive to the agricultural populations of many countries. For every vote in favor of funding cell cultivated meat, there are equal if not more votes against the food production method.

Biologically, cultured chicken breast is the same as the breast meat of a live raised chicken. As we understand it, the synthetic meat option is just as nutritious as the farm raised. And consumers attest to its flavor being exactly what one would expect chicken to taste like. It seems too good to be true. Mass amounts of prime meat cuts, grown without hormones or feeding off pesticide covered corn crops, and no animals experiencing any type of stress; if all goes according to plan. But nutrient content is just one pillar of food security.

Cell cultivated meat has so far fallen short when it comes to accessibility. While more than 100 companies all over the world have secured the capital needed to build small scale bioreactor facilities, most have underestimated the total cost of the process.  According to a recent study, even if operations were to scale to the extent that production costs and materials would be far below what they are now, the price of a pound of synthetic meat would be high; roughly $23 per pound. At this price point it would be a luxury dinner option only accessible to the wealthy.

Facilities already up and running are projected to grow 22 million tons of meat. This amount is equal to only 10% of the plant based meat currently produced. Generating this amount of cell cultivated meat could match demand for animal protein harvested without harming animals. But, it would barely put a dent in current demand for nutritious meat options, and even less so if population numbers rise. The United States alone consumes approximately 100 billion pounds of meat in a year’s time. If the industry were to scale and produce millions more tons, the figures still don’t make it a cost competitive option for the average consumer, and certainly not for the low-income households currently falling into insecure categories.

Whether or not cell cultivated meat is a resilient option is still up for debate. The process is incredibly complex. Many of the scientific nuances are not fully understood to the point of declaring them dependable. Current barriers include thermodynamics, the design of the bioreactors, the cost of ingredients, the construction of facilities, and actual cell metabolism. Transparency will likely play a big role in the adoption of processing synthetic meat since scientific mystery tends to lend itself to stigmas, especially when it pertains to the food we eat.

Social Impacts of Cultured Meat

European countries have banned cultured meat for many reasons from scalability to the safety of components used for growing edible muscle tissue. One of the most prominent reasons is the impact the process could have on many people’s means of earning income. Agriculture as we know it today is completely dependent on natural food that is raised or grown on ranches and farms. Several synthetic food companies hope to have affordable, nutritious, resilient meat supplies in full swing by 2030. Though this is becoming an unrealistic timetable, the option alone feels like a threat to farmers and the many businesses that offshoot from them. Millions of people all over the world earn their income by being part of agricultural supply chains; from growing, to processing, to transporting, to butchering and selling.  Do we really want to live like the Jetsons? 

Realistically, cultured meat will play a supporting role in food security efforts simply by offering one more option, but it is not likely to take a prominent place on the stage in the near future.

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