Cultured meat: what problems can or can’t it solve?
In 2013 the first piece of cultured meat was made and eaten. Pieces of meat grown in the lab are becoming cheaper to make and are well on their way to the supermarket. The creators of cultured meat want to solve the problems caused by livestock farming. For example, livestock farming increases the risk of the development of new infectious diseases. Livestock farming is also seen as animal unfriendly due to the poor conditions in slaughterhouses. And perhaps most importantly: livestock farming is a major contributor to the climate problem. But will cultured meat be the solution?
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The population of our planet is growing and eating meat is responsible for 40% of the greenhouse gases released during the production of food of the average Dutch person. Research from the University of Manitoba in Canada shows that it takes 4.5 kilos of food to produce 1 kilo of chicken meat. For 1 kilogram of pork, this is 9 kilograms of food and for 1 kilogram of beef, 25 kilograms of food is required. In this respect, cultured meat is different from meat from animals.
When making cultured meat, there is no need for a living animal that has to be fed for months, but cells from animals are grown in a laboratory. As a result, no food is needed as is the case with animals. However, nutrients are needed to allow the cells to grow.
There are several production steps for making cultured meat that all require energy. Nowadays this usually still takes place in a laboratory, but when cultured meat comes to the supermarket, that production moves to factories. It is difficult to predict exactly how sustainable cultured meat will be in the future because we do not yet know exactly how efficient those factories will be.
Researchers at the European Environment Agency expect that the production of cultured meat requires about the same amount of energy as the production of beef. Roughly half of the energy is needed for the production of pork and chicken meat. The same study shows that beef, pork and chicken meat production emits more greenhouse gases and requires more land than cultured meat production. For example, beef production requires about 20 times as much land and emits about 25 times more greenhouse gases compared to cultured meat.
The production of protein-rich vegetable crops such as beans and chickpeas remains more sustainable than the production of cultured meat. This is because fewer greenhouse gases are released and less energy and land are needed for the production of protein-rich vegetable crops than for the production of cultured meat.
A lot of food is needed for livestock and tropical rainforests are being cut down for this. Less land is needed for the production of cultured meat. So if cultured meat is a success, land will be released. That land could be partly returned to nature and partly used for sustainable energy production for cultured meat. For example, by installing windmills or solar panels on it.
Research from California shows that livestock animals are an important source of new infectious diseases in humans. Fewer animals are needed to make cultured meat. This reduces the chance of new infectious diseases developing. There is also less chance of bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics. Livestock, like humans, can be given antibiotics to treat bacterial infections. Especially with frequent use, there is a risk of the development of bacteria in which an antibiotic no longer works. An example of this is the MRSA bacteria, which mainly lead to outbreaks in hospitals. Research from Edinburgh has shown that the MRSA bacteria originates in livestock.
Livestock farming is often seen as animal unfriendly. The many animals required for meat production often live in sheds where they have limited space and do not resemble their natural environment. For Maria Fernandes, who works at the cultured meat company Meatable, this is one of her personal drivers for bringing cultured meat to the market: “I see how we exploit animals and how huge stables full of animals that have just been born and are going to slaughterhouses exist. The processing of these animals in slaughterhouses is terrible. As it goes for me, it is not ethical. ”According to her, cultured meat could solve this problem: “Everything we use to make cultured meat comes from non-animal sources. We remove the cells from the umbilical cord at the birth of a calf so that we do not have to harm the calf and the mother cow. ”
If cultured meat is successful, the demand for meat will gradually decrease and fewer animals will be bred. Therefore, it is not the case that all those billions of chickens and cows that now walk around the earth suddenly have to be slaughtered due to the arrival of cultured meat. At the moment, cultured meat is also expensive and has yet to be approved by the European food safety authority. Cultured meat companies expect to bring their products to the market in a couple of years.
Cultured meat can make an important contribution to several problems in livestock farming. Fernandes has a second driver for bringing cultured meat to the market: “It is a real technical challenge. If you can make this happen, how is it going to change the world? ”
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Smil, V. (2002). Worldwide transformation of diets, burdens of meat production and opportunities for novel food proteins. Enzyme and Microbial Technology, 30(3), 305-311.
Tuomisto, H. L., Ellis, M. J., & Haastrup, P. (2014). Environmental impacts of cultured meat: alternative production scenarios. 9th International Conference on Life Cycle Assessment in the Agri-Food Sector.
Wolfe, N. D., Dunavan, C. P., & Diamond, J. (2007). Origins of major human infectious diseases. Nature, 447(7142), 279-283.