30 Nov 2017

Synthetic, cultured, and in-vitro meat

Lucas writes*

Our diet means a lot to us. Nationality, family gatherings, religious holidays and many other significant dimensions of our identity are defined by food. Sadly, that nice slab of Sunday meat might be destroying the climate, as meat eating results in excessive water use, land use, energy use, and methane emissions -- even before considering animal cruelty.

Whether you find this important or not, you are certainly not paying a fair price for your meat. When you buy a piece of meat you pay a price that laughably reflects the costs that went into producing that meat. You are not compensating for the methane which is injected into our atmosphere, or the drought that may have happened due to a large farm that uses up all the water or the cruelty experienced by the animal. You are paying only a fraction of the costs, yet you obtain almost all of the benefits. This may be a pessimistic perspective on what we put on our plates, but a more optimistic option may be on the rise.

Throughout the past couple of years engineers have engaged in producing meat that does not require killing an animal. The process goes by many names: synthetic meat production, cultured meat, and in vitro meat. Put simply, they extract muscle stem cells from a live animal and then grow that cell by adding protein, eventually yielding a structure that resembles meat. The first versions were highly expensive, slow, and above all, not very tasty. However, we have seen a steep decline in the cost of production, as well as the taste and structure of the meat.

Predictions indicate that this type of meat production could drastically reduce GHG emissions, water use, and animal cruelty if it were to be widely consumed. The only issue is that this new technology is highly controversial. A lot of people take issue with the technology because it largely reflects ‘Playing God’. Further, uncertainty is high amongst governments because they are not sure if it safe or marketable. People have also been used to gaining their protein from meat and changing this behaviour might prove challenging. Thus, there are a lot of obstacles that stand between synthetic meat and the open market. Still, it seems like it is making it’s way there one test-tube sausage at a time.

Bottom line: synthetic meat is obscure, but it does promise many benefits. The literature shows that a large percentage of people are not yet willing to consume it. Yet, we can expect that the process will become faster, cheaper, and more like ‘real’ meat better with time. This will hopefully mean that people will warm up to the idea of ‘Frankenmeat’. The question thus remains whether synthetic meat will fix all the problems it promises to solve or whether there are consequences we are unaware of.

* Please help my environmental economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc. (Or you can just say something nice :)