It is hard to predict when Cultured Beef, meat created by harvesting muscle cells from a living cow, will be available to buy. It is clear, however, that we need to make changes in how we produce meat.
Traditional livestock farming methods alone will struggle to meet this demand, and it may cause serious ecological damage in the process.
To start, there isn’t enough water in the world to support croplands needed to produce enough food for an extra 2 billion mouths in 2050, Malin Falkenmark and colleagues at the Stockholm International Water Institute concluded in a recent report.
Meat is by far the biggest water-user. Roughly 1,500 gallons of water are required to produce just one pound of meat, Environmental Working Group co-founder Ken Cook said in a film produced by the Cultured Beef project. Already, 2.7 billion people worldwide suffer from water scarcity, and the water crisis is only getting worse.
Meat production uses up lots of energy too, between the grain that livestock consume and added costs related to care and transportation. It takes 55 calories of fossil fuel to make 1 calorie of beef protein, according to “The Food Revolution” by John Robbins, while it takes only 2 calories of fossil fuel to make 1 calorie of soybean protein.
Meat is also making it a lot harder to feed the world. Currently, 70% of farmed land is already used for livestock production. The same amount of land used to grow cabbage can feed 23 times as many people than if it were used to grow beef, according to Robbins.
To create new land for pasture and feed crops, farmers are steadily clearing forests around the world — thereby causing another environmental problem.
Livestock production is also a major factor in global warming, contributing to 18% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2006 report by FAO. Cows are the main culprit, producing a lot of methane because of the way they digest food. More cows mean more methane at a time when the world urgently needs to control emissions.
Conventional livestock production raises moral issues as well. In order to meet the growing demand for meat, most agricultural industries have turned to factory farming as a way to raise lots of animals on scant space. Confining animals on overcrowded feed lots, where they are often subject to abuse, is increasingly seen as unethical.
This way of raising livestock also creates health risks. 70 per cent of antibiotics in the United States are used for factory-farmed animals to prevent the spread of diseases, says Cook.
All of these issues explain why Cultured Beef is a big deal.
The test-tube burger is far more efficient, using 99% less space than modern livestock farming. Cells from a single cow could produce 175 million quarter-pounders, according to the company, while traditional farming methods would need 440,000 cows.
If artificial meat caught on, it could have a tremendous ecological impact.
But we’re not there yet.
First of all, the first Cultured Beef burger cost $US330,000 to produce. The burger’s creator, Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University, expects that price to decline rapidly, however, with large-scale production starting within 10-20 years.