Says Yaakov Nahmias, founder and chief scientist of the Israel-based startup Future Meat Technologies: “Right now, growing cells as meat instead of animals is a very expensive process.
But it will get cheaper, and it probably will be needed.
Global population is heading for 10 billion by 2050. Average global incomes will triple in the same period, enabling more people to eat meat-rich diets.
“We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before,” says Prof. Tim Lang of the University of London, one of the 37 scientific co-authors who wrote a report by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health. But we’ve heard it all before.
It takes seven kilograms of grain to grow one kilo of beef. We have appropriated three-quarters of the world’s fertile land for food production, and we’ll need the rest by 2050.
The world’s stocks of seafood will have collapsed by 2050. It’s all true, but we’re sick of being nagged.
The EAT-Lancet Commission even has a diet that will save the planet. Cut your beef consumption by 90 per cent (i.e., one steak a month). Eat more beans and pulses and more nuts and seeds. Going vegetarian or vegan will help even more. That’s all true too – but I don’t think it’s going to happen.
No doubt there will in due course be high taxes on meat and fish, and propaganda campaigns to persuade people to change their eating habits, and some people will change – but not enough.
We need to bring the rest of the population along, and few things are more persistent than cultural dietary preferences. Like eating meat.
So clearly there would be a huge market for real meat that didn’t come from cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens, but tastes right and doesn’t trash the environment.
We’re not talking about the famous $325,000 hamburger patty made from beef cells immersed in a growth medium that was triumphantly cooked on television six years ago.
We’re talking about a proper steak with muscle and fat cells and the right shape, taste and texture – but not one produced by the familiar process that uses huge amounts of fertile land, releases large amounts of greenhouse gases, and involves slaughtering live animals.
That is Yaakov Nahmias’s goal, and he’s pretty close now.
Future Meat Technologies produces its cell-based meat in bioreactors, growing it on lattices that give it shape and texture, but we’re not talking about giant vats in a lab. He plans to give small units to existing farmers.
He reckons that with a distributed manufacturing model, he can get the cost down to about $5 a kilogram.
Meat giant Tyson Foods recently put $2.2 million of seed money into his company. A dozen other start-ups are chasing the same goal with a total of 30 labs around the world.
Coming up behind cell-based meat, there’s the even newer concept of solar foods. A Finnish company called just that is using electricity from solar panels to electrolyze water and produce hydrogen.
The hydrogen is fed to bacteria, and the product is an edible food that is half carbohydrates, half fats and protein.
It is just as good as soya as an animal food, and it uses no land at all. No greenhouse gas emissions either, and the first factory producing it opens in two years’ time. Technology alone can’t save us, but it can certainly shift the odds in our favour.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).