- Producing meat is a resource-intensive and wasteful process. Pigs and cows require land to graze and crops to eat; water is used throughout the process.
- Climate change and a growing population will turn up the heat on these resources.
- A handful of companies are trying to solve the problem with plant-based meat, but since those products rely on grains and veggies, they will ultimately face the same challenges.
- Genetic engineering technique CRISPR may help solve these problems by making both plants and animals that are more immune to environmental challenges.
Making meat is wasteful work.
An ounce of beef – one-sixth of a standard burger patty – requires over 100 gallons of water. Dairy cattle, chickens, and pigs also belch out methane, a key greenhouse gas, and the factories and farms that house them add carbon dioxide to the mix. Livestock are also prone to disease. An estimated 20% of the world’s animal protein is lost to bacterial infections and illness.
A new technology may help solve these issues. CRISPR, which allows for tiny, precise tweaks to DNA that were previously considered impossible, is being used to make crops that are cheaper, more reliable, and more immune to environmental challenges like drought and pests. Experts say the first CRISPR corn and mushrooms could be on grocery shelves within two-to-eight years.
“We’re not talking about the future. We’re talking about right now,” Stefan Jansson, a plant researcher at Umea University in Sweden, told Business Insider.
Neal Gutterson, the vice president of research and development at agricultural giant DuPont Pioneer, told Business Insider that the company’s first CRISPR-edited grain, a type of corn that will be used in products like soups and salad dressings, “will likely be the first commercial product for agriculture and potentially the first product to market for any [CRISPR] application.” He expects the company to bring it to market “by the end of this decade.”
Scientists are already experimenting with using the new tool to solve some of the problems presented by a more environmentally chaotic world.
Last February, Chinese researchers used CRISPR to create cows that are better protected from tuberculosis, a chronic bacterial disease that can spread to humans and has fuelled the scourge of antibiotic resistance. About nine months later, another team from China used the tool to give pigs less white fat (aka lard) and more brown fat (the stuff that helps them keep warm) than normal animals. If the development were perfected and scaled up – something that would require more research – it could cut costs and make the animals better able to withstand extreme temperatures.
Around the same time, at the University of California at Davis,Alison Van Eenennaam successfully bred CRISPR cows without horns, which could one day eliminate the need for breeders to manually burn horns off so that the animals don’t hurt each other or farmers. Van Eenennaam, a professor of animal genomics, oversees multiple projects that use various new forms of gene editing to modify cattle in a way that might protect them from animal cruelty and climate change.
“Why wouldn’t you want a disease-resistant animal?” she told Business Insider. “It ticks off every box there is – animal welfare, environment, economics. What else is there to say?”
Why meatless meat may not solve the problem
In the meantime, several companies are trying to solve the problem from a different angle. They want to create meat-like products – also known as plant-based meat – without any animals at all.
California-based startup Beyond Meat sells a burger made mostly from pea protein at 5,000 restaurants and in the meat aisle at some Whole Foods grocery stores; Bill Gates is among the company’s investors. Impossible Foods, another California startup backed by Gates, makes another plant-based burger that’s on offer at several upscale fast-casual restaurants, including Umami Burger and Momofuku.
But since these burgers rely on plants, their makers could ultimately face the same challenges that will confront farmers across the globe. As the global population rises and climate change pushes crop production down, prices and demand could rise significantly – which brings us back to CRISPR crops.
The world population of 7.6 billion could reach 11.2 billion by 2100, according to recent UN estimates. And though the world will have more mouths to feed, it will have less food to do so.
Climate change is projected to drive down crop yields by up to a quarter in some parts of the world, with important food sources like corn and wheat seeing dramatic losses. A study published by researchers at Michigan State University suggests that high temperatures not only weaken plants’ natural defences but strengthen bacterial attacks, a sort of double whammy for crop productivity.
“Agriculture must transform over the next 30 years in order for us to avoid mass famine,” Charlotte Lusty, who helps manage agricultural gene banks for an international nonprofit called the Crop Trust, said at the UN Climate Change Conference in November.
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