Header image by
Hartmut Naegele. Courtesy of New Harvest.
Eating animals is hard on the environment. Livestock production, according to the United Nations, places significant stress on the planet. Cows are one of the biggest offenders. It’s estimated to take 10 times the energy and 10 times the water to produce a kilo of beef, compared to crops such as wheat, potatoes, corn, or beans. Pigs and chickens aren’t as bad but still require more resources to produce than plants.
The climate change impact of raising animals is immense. One estimate says livestock are responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Some say it’s lower, others claim it’s far higher. Whatever the exact number, it’s more than what’s emitted by cars. Quitting meat could do more for climate change than ditching your SUV.
And yet meat production and consumption are rising fast, partly due to the growing global population, but also because as people emerge from poverty, they eat more meat. Encouraging people to cut back doesn’t work.
One possible solution has been in the works for years. While meat doesn’t grow on trees, it does in a petri dish. Instead of using massive amounts of land, water, and other resources to grow animals, just grow meat in a lab. Start with a culture of cow muscle tissue, feed it, and it grows into a steak. Or by a similar process, produce other meats, milk, and chicken eggs.
This idea has been dreamed about for nearly a century. In 1931, Winston Churchill famously predicted lab-grown meat within 50 years.
It took longer than that, but a breakthrough came in 2013, when researchers in the Netherlands produced the first lab-grown hamburger. It cost $325,000 to develop and apparently the taste left something to be desired (in part because it had zero fat).
Since then, work has continued to get the costs down and the flavour better, and some of the money and support has come from New Harvest, a non-profit based in New York that’s trying to promote what it calls “cellular agriculture.”
Erin Kim, New Harvest’s communications director, says the product will eventually be superior to cultivated animal meat, and not just because it eases pressure on the environment. “The product could one day be an improvement upon meat sourced from animals.”
One of its partners, Modern Meadow, produces cultivated leather that allows for control over the thickness, opacity, and even the exact size and shape of the final product. The new science of cellular agriculture seeks to “liberate industries from the previous limits that were set by the dependence on animals.”
But there still remains a big problem. While consumers might not consider it a big deal to wear lab-grown leather, eating cultured meat produced the same way is another matter. A number of surveys and studies have started to examine how the public perceives these post-animal products. While research and surveys remain sparse, it appears people are skittish. One Pew Research survey conducted in 2014 found that 80 per cent of Americans are not enthusiastic about the idea of eating lab-grown meat.
Think about it yourself. If you walked into a grocery store’s meat department and could choose between a package of beef from a cow or beef from a lab, which would you grab? This may partly explain why New Harvest’s biggest challenge is raising money to fund its projects.
Rather than trying to convince consumers first, New Harvest is focused on sharing its research in the world of academia and government. This past July, they hosted the first-ever global conference devoted to the animal-free food economy in San Francisco. Eventually, it wants cellular agriculture studied in universities. As the science gains traction, they hope it will make it easier to raise more money for research and in time become more acceptable.
But it’s also about getting those already on board to step up. Currently, most of New Harvest’s funding comes from individual donors contributing as little as $10 as well as some in the $100,000 range. Kim says that future consumers are making private donations, with many seeing it as an investment. “It’s hard to communicate and get people to really understand that if they want this to happen, there isn’t a straightforward way other than by supporting New Harvest to create a community that will enable cellular agriculture to be-come a reality.”
When Churchill made his prediction 85 years ago, the urgency of climate change was non-existent. The question now is how long the planet can wait for his hope to be fulfilled.