Ask an Agro: A look at the future of meat production

By in Ask an Agro/Opinions

Unless you have vegetarian habits, you probably enjoy barbecue burgers on weekends with friends. But most meat eaters don’t like to think about the unfortunate reality of how that steak came to be.

Soon, you won’t need to have that philosophical debate. Before long, consumers will be able to savour a smokey burger dripping with barbecue sauce without a guilty conscience by eating laboratory-grown meat.

Scientists have been labouring since 1995 to make synthetic meat. If the environmentalists who believe that cows have a dire effect on our environment get their way, it may be our only option in the future.

Laboratory meat is created by extracting a muscle sample from an animal, so technicians can collect stem cells. These stem cells are cultured on a petri dish where they grow and differentiate, eventually bulking to form muscle tissue. One sample from a cow can yield up to 80,000 quarter pounders, claims Mosa Meats.

Traditional red meat is a great source of protein, vitamins and minerals. However, observational studies show that there is a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and death associated with red meat.

Cultured or lab-grown meat can be further altered for specific nutritional outcomes to contain less saturated fats, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Sounds like we should all make the change and opt for healthier protein, right?

The cost of producing cultured meats is astonishing. In 2013, the first lab-grown quarter pounder cost USD 325,000. The price has dropped since then, and currently, Future Meat Technologies markets a price of USD 363 per pound, projecting they will be able to cut costs to between USD 2.30 and USD 4.50 per pound by 2020.

Obviously, there are numerous controversies surrounding lab-grown meat. Unsurprisingly, the most resistance stems from agriculture stakeholders. Debates have erupted surrounding which products can use the term “meat,” and CBC reports that the United States beef, poultry, pork and lamb industries are moving to claim ownership of the term.

Danielle Beck, director of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, has a problem with the term “clean meat” coined by scientists, arguing that it implies that conventional meat is dirty.

Lab-grown meat is meant to be a quality protein source that eliminates the need to farm and butcher livestock. Although the thought of eating animal protein without harming animals sounds utopian, the method used for gathering stem cells is an invasive and painful technique.

Additionally, the agar on which the cells are grown is supplemented with fetal bovine serum,   extracted from an unborn calf at a slaughterhouse.

To environmentalists, “clean meat” means a lighter environmental footprint. Laboratory companies believe if more people gravitate towards a product that is nutritionally similar to traditional meat, it could significantly reduce the
greenhouse-gas emissions currently produced by about one billion ruminating cows around the world.

However, the United States Environmental Protection Agency reports that, in 2016, agriculture accounted for only 9 per cent of GHG emissions, whereas commercial and residential, at 11 per cent, and transportation, at 28 per cent, together accounted for 39 per cent of emissions.

Furthermore, developing cells must be kept at body temperature, ranging from 37 to 41 degrees Celsius, so substantial heating and electrical costs are attributed to the process. Both of these energy sources rely heavily on fossil fuels, another bane to environmentalism.

Although extensive livestock systems — where animals are kept free range — have been viewed as negatively impacting the environment, there are numerous advantages as well. Extensive livestock production is paramount to sustaining rangeland health, providing further biodiversity and enhancing soil fertility by recycling nutrients.

There is no doubt that lab-grown meat is one of the most interesting recent scientific accomplishments. It offers another protein source for those who aren’t comfortable eating traditional animal products and has the potential to reduce GHG emissions.

In time, the importance of cultured meat may grow as pressure on the food supply increases. But the benefits of agriculture cannot be ignored. No matter how research proceeds, conventional agriculture will continue to remain fundamentally important.

Darian Livingstone

Graphic: Jaymie Stachyruk / Graphics Editor