By Daan Luining, a Founder and CTO at Meatable
The planet’s prognosis isn’t good.
Climate change and its attendant habitat and biodiversity loss is a given: the race is now on to contain a global temperature rise of 1.5°C.
In their latest Working Group III report, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) declared it’s “now or never” to take dramatic climate action and that limiting warming to around 1.5°C would need global greenhouse gas emissions to peak by 2025 at the latest. Then, they would have to be slashed by 43% by 2030 – with methane emissions cut by a third. Even with these actions, the IPCC states it’s “almost inevitable” that temperatures will temporarily rise above 1.5°C but could drop back to this limit by the end of the century.
The earth has long been showing climate symptoms. The devastating floods in South Africa, wildfires sweeping the US, and record-breaking drought in Chile are all just recent examples of extreme events linked to climate breakdown.
Of course, there’s no mystery as to why the earth is suffering. The climate crisis is the direct result of human action and the unsustainable activities of industries to date. And it’s not just through rising temperatures that we’re hurting the planet. Habitat destruction and overfishing, among other actions, have contributed to a 68% drop in global mammal, bird, fish, reptile, and amphibian populations since 1970.
What we put on our plate is a big part of this.
Our global appetite for meat means more than 50 billion animals are killed for food every year. That’s not a typo – more than 50 billion.
Raising, killing and transporting their meat consumes huge amounts of space and resources. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation worldwide and nearly 30% of global ice-free land is occupied by farmed animals while two-thirds of the EU’s agricultural land is used to produce animal feed. Conventional farming is a thirsty industry too: the livestock sector consumes around one-third of all freshwater globally.
Then there’s the emissions. 14% of all greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to farmed meat.
But conventional farming doesn’t just hurt the planet’s health. Conventionally farmed meat also has implications for global health and healthcare.
For instance, as it currently stands, conventional farming has a role to play in fueling antibiotic overuse – one of the biggest public health threats facing the world today. This is because antibiotics are widely used in conventional farming, not only to keep animals well, but as a growth promotion strategy. In the USA, as much as 80% of all antibiotics sold are sold for use in animal agriculture.
If antibiotics are used when they aren’t medically necessary – as in growth promotion – this leads to antimicrobial resistance, threatening the world’s ability to treat disease in animals and in humans. If the antibiotics we have are no longer effective against bacterial infections, death rates will rise, healthcare systems will be further strained, and treatment costs will become more expensive.
But this isn’t the only implication conventional farming has for our collective health. When animals are kept in close quarters, disease quickly spreads between livestock. At best, this leads to meat shortages. At worst, it facilitates disease transmission to humans.
Enter, cultured meat
If conventional farming is unhealthy for both ourselves and the planet, we need a rethink.
There’s the argument to end all meat consumption but in the context of our ever-growing appetite for meat – and the importance of meat to personal diet – this solution can’t achieve change at the speed we need. So, in addition to looking at lifestyle changes, we need to change the way conventional farming operates as well as the way we source our meat.
It’s not like meat, it is meat, grown from a sample taken from an animal. And while it takes three years for a cow to be reared for slaughter in conventional farming, cultured meat can be produced in just a couple of weeks. Not only this, but producing meat in this way means only the parts of an animal that will be used are created, reducing waste and the additional resource use that comes with it.
The environmental impact of this is huge.
One of the main reasons conventional farmed meat is so environmentally destructive is the inefficiency of converting plant matter to meat. A 3-year-old cow ready for slaughter will have consumed a large amount of feed in its lifetime, meaning, on average, you need almost 8kg of dry plant weight to produce 1kg of beef. In contrast, we expect to only require 3kg of plant input per 1kg of our cultured meat – making the process more than twice as efficient.
Such efficiency gains will dramatically cut the emissions and land use associated with meat production. A recent study from CE Delft, an independent research and consultancy firm, found that cultured meat can reduce the carbon footprint of conventional beef by up to 92% and reduce land use by 95%.
And this is just the starting point. The CE Delft study assumed that it would take 30 days to complete the proliferation stage of the process (the most energy-intensive step). With our technology we expect to do this much quicker, meaning cultured meat could have an even lower carbon footprint than CE Delft estimates.
Improving global health
The rise of cultured meat could be revolutionary for public health too. Fat and muscle cells grown in a clinical environment have no need for antibiotics and so do not contribute to antimicrobial resistance. Additionally, it ends the practice of raising animals in cramped conditions and sending them to abattoirs – both environments where pandemic-producing disease can flourish.
Yet this isn’t all. Cultured meat gives us an opportunity to improve our future health. Growing meat this way means we have full control of the nutrients we feed cells, which influences the final composition of the meat. Consequently, we have the potential to create meat that is just as delicious as conventionally farmed meat but even healthier – for instance, containing fewer saturated fats or more essential amino acids. Such science means that, over time, we could create meat that improves the overall health of global populations.
Conventional farming is unhealthy for the planet and its people. But cultured meat can help treat both. If we turn from conventional methods and embrace cultivated meat we can start making the dramatic emissions cuts we need and help protect against pandemics. The meat we put on our plate can either fuel global crises or help protect our future – the time to choose is now.
Daan Luining is a Founder and CTO at Meatable.