An alternative for the world’s insatiable demand for meat?
The idea of culturing flesh for meat and other animal products is more than a gee-whiz moment for technology geeks—whoever can bring the food technology to market will take a major step toward alleviating one of the key factors fueling humanity’s large looming crises. Forgacs and others who are pursuing engineered meat are hopeful that it will be a viable alternative protein in the world’s food supply within a couple of decades.
Here’s a number to think about for a moment: 122 billion lbs. That’s how much beef and veal the world consumed in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and it is only a fraction of the 1.5 billion cattle alive on the planet. Meanwhile, the world consumed another 223 billion lbs. of pork the same year. The Economist says overall global demand for meat will double by 2050.
All those animals put a huge burden on the environment, consume vast amounts of resources and energy, expose people and other animals to infectious diseases and cause many distress over livestock welfare.
Looking at the environmental impacts of meat production, researchers from the universities of Oxford and Amsterdam found that cultured meat expends 7-45 percent less energy than conventional farming methods; produces 78-96 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions; uses 99 percent less land; and requires 82-96 percent less water, depending on the meat types they 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,” the authors said in their July 2011 Environmental Science & Technology journal paper.
Forgacs says, “We got into this for several reasons—because it’s possible, it’s new, it’s exciting and it’s important. We love technological innovation and its ability to enable social benefit.”
Helping the world is a noble goal, but there are also very large economic incentives to their work. Analysts at business information provider MarketLine report that the international meat, fish and poultry market generated revenues of $527.6 billion in 2010, which represented a compound annual growth rate of 3.8 percent for 2006-2010.
Modern Meadow’s meat and leather would be competing for a share of a combined $2.5 trillion market, Forgacs says.
“If we can come up with a very good product that can be technically superior in some ways and at the same time environmentally more conscious and animal friendly, then that could mean a significant portion of the global market,” he says, noting that any cultured meat that makes it to market is unlikely to take a significant share for some time to come. “This isn’t something to make anybody in the animal farming industry quake in their boots for the next decade.”
Modern Meadow isn’t the only group looking for a solution to all the problems associated with raising livestock.
For the last several years, Dr. Mark Post, the head of the physiology department at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, has been working to grow meat in his laboratory. He’s using a different approach—breeding bovine adult stem cells, turning them into muscle cells and then growing them in a medium containing fetal calf serum. Post and his team are also growing fat using a similar process. They will mix the two together to create a hamburger patty Post expects to serve in October. The burger is projected to cost more than $350,000.