Burgers, ribs, fried chicken, and pork rolls are all staples of the western diet. However, the world’s growing consumption of meat has taken a huge toll on the biodiversity of animals and the environment as a whole.
Meat consumption across the globe in both developed and developing world is on the rise. According to Slow Food, just in the second half of the 20th century, global meat consumption increased fivefold, growing from 45 million tonnes of meat consumed in 1950 to almost 300 million tonnes today. If not stopped, that number could double by 2050.
It makes sense economically. As more nations become wealthier the growing middle class will have more resources to purchase more meat-based solutions. Environmentalists have warned that the world’s growing appetite for meat is not sustainable and could potentially wreak havoc on the world. So, what’s a science potential solution? Lab-grown meat.
The first, and most controversial, is lab-grown meat. You can’t find it in your supermarket yet, but it’s making its way there pretty quickly. Let’s discuss the basics so you can learn why some people are skeptical and others excited. Lab-grown meat (and in this case, the term “meat” is fairly accurate, since, on a cellular level, that is precisely what it is) is made by taking a biopsy from an animal’s muscle and then using it to grow more muscle cells in a mixture of nutrients that enable them to multiply, thereby creating meat from meat.
The wasting of water is a major issue in the Western World, but an even bigger issue in the production of meat. According to Peta, just to produce 1 pound or about a half a kilo of meat requires more than 2,400 gallons, compared to maybe just 25 gallons of water.
According to the research, you could save more water by simply not eating the meat rather than not showering for six months. Lab-grown could help significantly reduce this issue.
In a study published in Environmental Science and Technology, the study stated that “it is estimated that lab-grown meat, involves approximately 7–45% lower energy use (only poultry has lower energy use), 78–96% lower GHG emissions, 99% lower land use, and 82–96% lower water use depending on the product compared.”
“Despite high uncertainty, it is concluded that the overall environmental impacts of cultured meat production are substantially lower than those of conventionally produced meat.”
Some food safety and public health advocates see the uniformity and sterility of lab-grown meat as a big plus. The risks associated with food-borne illnesses could be reduced by this technology; there would be fewer cases of E. coli, listeria and salmonella poisonings since contact with manure is eliminated, and it could prevent livestock diseases such as swine flu. Antibiotics are presently used in lab-grown meat since the current culture methods used are susceptible to bacterial contamination.
But that could change once the proof-of-concept work is finished. At that point, systems would be scaled up and the cultures were grown in purely sterile environments and without antibiotics, which would preserve a critical public health resource. And if the industry does manage to replace industrialized meat production, a lot of communities would fare a lot better without factory farms in their backyards.
Environmentalists, however, are split in their responses to lab-grown meat. Proponents say cell-cultured meat will release far fewer emissions into the atmosphere than animal agriculture does. Some argue that the land we currently use for raising animals could be converted to vegetation.
This would increase carbon sequestration efforts and could significantly contribute to combating climate change. Others say this technology essentially replaces one resource-intense practice with another (very expensive) one. The comparative research on this is slow-moving, though, and the externalities involved are still being weighed.
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