Population experts predict that, by the year 2100, there will be 10 billion humans on the Earth. And yet, the world has not made valid plans regarding how to develop enough food to feed that number of people. Second only to clean water availability, feeding their people could end up being the biggest problem facing many countries around the world. The five countries with the highest projected populations are India, China, Nigeria, the United States, and Tanzania. Those countries alone are expected to have a combined populace of 4 billion hungry souls. That’s a lot of people to feed.
We’ve heard a great deal over the years about increasing crop yields, GMO’s, hybrid foods, and any number of ways to increase food production efficiency. Pesticides used in the past, such as DDT, Calcium Cyanide, and Paraquat, have been banned as being carcinogenic and generally unhealthy to humans and other animals. GMO’s have been coming under increasing pressure as countries worldwide prohibit the production and consumption of genetically modified foods. The potential long-term harm to humans and the permanent genetic alteration of heirloom fruits and vegetables are feared among scientists. This brings our discussion to meat production requirements and how the population increase will affect the way meat is grown and distributed.
Current studies show that it takes 23 calories of feed to produce one calorie of beef. Raising beef cattle requires a huge amount of land. This becomes more problematic as populations increase and grazing lands decrease. A conservative figure puts the amount of grazing land required to raise a cow to maturity at 2.5 acres. If that’s even close, we currently need 250 million acres or 390,000 square miles just to support today’s American bovine population. That’s equal to more than 10% of the total area of the United States. In addition, raising cattle requires an enormous amount of clean water, of which we are rapidly running out. Cultivated livestock also emits more greenhouses gases than all the gas-powered vehicles in the world combined.
How do we prepare to provide meat to the burgeoning future populations with less and less grazing land available to raise the animals required? Enter cultured meat.
“This is absolutely the future of meat,” said Memphis Meats CEO Uma Valeti, M.D. “We plan to do to animal agriculture what the car did to the horse and buggy. Cultured meat will completely replace the status quo and make raising animals to eat them simply unthinkable.”
Memphis Meats is one of the first companies on the scene to develop meat products from animal cells. The company rolled out its plans to potential investors on Feb. 4, 2016, at a conference in San Francisco. The company was started by Uma Valenti, a cardiologist; Nicholas Genovese, a stem cell biologist; and Will Clem, a biomedical engineer. Clem also owns a chain of barbeque restaurants in Tennessee. Not an Anthony Bourdain or Emeril Lagasse among the group. It fact, it sounds more like a trio of scientists who should be developing an artificial heart instead of developing something to clog the arteries.
For decades, scientists have been researching how best to address food’s ever more challenging production requirements and meat has been one of the prime areas of that research. Foreseeing the problem of disappearing grazing lands and the industry of raising animals simply for slaughter, Winston Churchill made this statement in 1931: “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
So exactly what is cultured meat? Quite simply, it’s meat that has been grown in a laboratory environment from the cells of beef, chicken, or pork. Proponents of this research say that by producing meat in a lab instead of on a farm results in a much healthier product. Memphis Meats promotes that cultured meat does not contain antibiotics, pathogens, or fecal matter which can regularly be found in raw meat. Cultured meat also contains much less saturated fats than conventionally sourced meat.
Memphis Meats has been hard at work developing hot dogs, sausage, and burger products, but, for their official press conference, they demonstrated their meatballs. A supposed volunteer taste tester said, “It’s good. It tastes like a meatball.”
And there you go. Mission accomplished, many would say. At this point in time, though, Memphis Meats estimates the cost to produce a pound of beef from Memphis Meats is $18,000, not quite to Value Meal level yet.
While Memphis Meats beef is still incredibly expensive, other researchers have been working on the problem and have developed some less expensive alternatives. Mark Post, a scientist in the Netherlands, claims to have reduced the costs for his lab-grown beef to $11 per patty, bringing it closer to that Happy Meal threshold.
Memphis Meats is said to be concentrating mostly on pork products. Speculation is, with one of their founders owning a chain of barbeque restaurants, could a lab grown pulled-pork sandwich be their first product to make it to a menu?
In addition to Memphis Meats, there are a number of companies developing food products from domestic animal cells. One called Modern Meadows is producing leather and steak. Muufri is developing cow’s milk and Clara Foods is working on egg whites. Both companies are using yeast as the basis for their product development. Counter Culture Labs is concentrating on cheese and the Modern Agriculture Foundation at Tel Aviv University plans to someday be KFC’s main chicken supplier. Laboratory grown food compounds could also be important to the continuing existence of some endangered species. A company called New Wave Foods is developing a lab grown shark fin and another, Pembiant, is working on a rhino horn replacement. Both products are in high demand in Asia.
A cruise through Memphis Meat’s web site showed they are in hiring mode. Normally, a meat producer would be filling positions for butchers, trimmers, and packers. The call for professionals at Memphis Meats, however, highlights a whole new class of food industry workers – bioprocess engineer, stem cell biologist, and research lab manager were the open positions at the top of their list. Seems like a list of want ads more suited to a pharmaceutical company than a meat supplier.
One of the concerns future cultured meat customers may have to face is food fraud. Verification tests must be put in place to make sure the product being touted is indeed a real meat product. Recent incidents of food fraud, especially in products from China, have shown up in everything from baby formula to pet foods. A newly released report states that a significant portion of the grated Parmesan cheese we use every day may contain ground up wood pulp. New rules and laws concerning cultured foods are going to be required, but, like any other form of regulations, the producers will probably fight and lobby tooth and nail to keep their industry as free from government control as possible. This may give a whole new meaning to the term Mystery Meat.
I have a number of friends who are vegetarians. Many of them do not eat meat because of the cruelty inherent in mass market animal production procedures. The question, is will these people suddenly become meat eaters if the meat is produced in a more humane manner?
Even more importantly – WWPD. What Would PETA Do? In the 1991 film Switch, actress Ellen Barkin appeared in a scene where she and a female friend are walking down the street. The friend is wearing a full length fur coat and is approached by an animal rights supporters who says to her, “Do you know how many animals were killed to make that coat?” The friend’s answer was, “Do you know how many animals I (screwed) to get this coat?” With companies like Modern Meadows working on animal cell leather, can fur be all that far behind? In the future, the question may be, “Do you know how many lab technicians it took to make that coat?” And the answer? “None. My son grew this coat in his garage lab with hair from our dog, Tiny.”
So who knows? In the year 2116, all McDonalds’ burgers may come with a disclaimer that says, “No live animals were harmed in the making of this Big Mac.”