EVOLUTION OR REVOLUTION: CAN CULTURED MEAT BE A GAME-CHANGER FOR FOOD?
Why We Need to Combine Intellect with Compassion
In the wake of the world’s first commercial sale of cultured meat in Singapore, a pioneering symposium was hosted by animal welfare organisations, GAIA and Eurogroup for Animals to ask, should meat from stem-cells be part of a sustainable and animal-friendly food revolution?
The answer I drew from my closing remarks at the symposium was a resounding, ‘yes’.
Speaking amongst the remains of dinosaurs at the museum of natural sciences in Brussels, I was moved by how many species have gone extinct and how many are now threatened by the same fate thanks to impending crises of climate and the collapse of nature, calamities to which animal factory farming is an integral driver.
If we are to save the natural world and thereby the future for our children, we must find a better, kinder way to produce food.
What struck me at the symposium was that technology may well have the answer to spiralling animal cruelty, global warming and impending mass extinction: cultured meat.
Whenever we talk about food tech like cultured meat, we are talking about human intellect.
World-leading environmentalist, Dr Jane Goodall, who gave the symposium’s keynote speech, wrote in her newly published, The Book of Hope how human intellect has enabled a rather weak and unexceptional species of prehistoric ape to evolve into what Homo sapiens have become now: “self-appointed masters of the world”.
She draws a distinction between intellect and intelligence: “An intelligent animal would not destroy its only home”.
With time running out to save our only home, perhaps it is time for our species to evolve once more: to turn intellect into intelligence.
Speaking to author, Douglas Abrams, the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who’s stand against apartheid changed the course of history in South Africa said, “It takes time for us to become fully human.” Abrams suggested that what Tutu was getting at is that it takes time for us to evolve morally. And in order to do that, we need our head and heart to work together, combining intellect with compassion.
In the realm of food, cultured meat gives us the opportunity to have that moral evolution: to bring intellect and compassion together in a new and intelligent way; producing protein without the cruelty and destruction associated with factory farming.
“Guilt-free meat that allows us to tap into our sensory selves,” is how classically trained chef Robert E Jones, now head of public affairs at Dutch cell-based meat start-up, Mosa Meat, described it.
He was talking about cultured meat, which is produced from cells drawn from donor animals without harm and then raised on a plant-based diet in a bioreactor, no animal components needed. Replicating nature but without the slaughter.
More than a hundred companies have already raised $2.3 billion in funding for the development of cultured meat, including investment of public funds from early adopting governments.
The opportunity is vast – today’s animal-based meat industry is worth $1.4 trillion ($1.4 million million) and continues to grow, a deeply worrying statistic as the greenhouse gas emissions from our appetite for meat alone could trigger catastrophic climate change.
Cultured meat on the other hand has a much lower environmental footprint, reducing the impact on climate, land use and air pollution by 90%.
Latest predictions suggest cultivated meat could secure 10% of the meat market by 2030 and as much as 35% by 2040.
As well as benefits for animals and the planet, there are clear positives for those currently working on factory farms says Professor Carla Molenta from the University of Parana in Brazil. Her studies of the social impact of cultivated meat suggest that it could improve working conditions, increase wages and lower disease risk compared to current practice. This is because factory farms all too often rely on poorly paid workers operating in disease-inducing conditions.
Professor Molenta sees the prospect of a real shift happening in public perception too as the new cell-based meat takes hold in the marketplace: “Normal meat will become stranger as cultured meat becomes more normal.”
But are people ready to it eat?
Scientist Chris Bryant has found that a sizeable proportion of consumers are already open to trying cultured meat, more so than GMOs or insects. He believes that when it comes to labelling, the most important thing consumers want to see is that cultured meat has regulatory approval.
One of the most touching moments of the Brussels symposium was hearing from Ira van Eelen, daughter of Willem – the man widely regarded as being the Godfather of cultured meat. Ira spoke of following in her father’s footsteps on a mission to turn meat without animals from dream to reality. That we should harvest meat, not slaughter for it.
She spoke of how her father was attacked by some who would ask, why not just go vegan?
Well, my own answer to that question is quite clear: people want to eat meat. Despite the recent rise of plant-based eating – which is hugely welcome – the statistical fact is that more people are eating more meat today than ever before. To reach our goal in the short window of opportunity left to us, plant-based meat will need a helping hand from something that is undisputedly ‘meat’ but not from a slaughtered animal.
Most meat eaten today comes from factory farmed animals. This industrial animal rearing is the biggest cause of animal cruelty on the planet, a major driver of wildlife declines, and is integral to the climate crisis.
Time is running out. If we carry on eating factory farmed meat as we are, then by 2040 our food alone could have triggered catastrophic climate change. We will likely face a world with a billion extra people and a third less soil for growing food. And overall wildlife numbers worldwide may well have declined in a single human lifetime by more than 95%.
To get a crisis-ridden world back on track, we need the amount of meat produced from animal-rearing in high consuming regions like the EU, UK and US to reduce by 70% by 2030.
With so little time and such a massive challenge, game-changing solutions are needed. Cultured meat has the potential to be one of the most important game-changers, offering us the opportunity to bring together human intellect and compassion in one nutritious package.
Food’s ‘renewable energy’
Cultured meat holds out the very real prospect of being the renewable energy equivalent for food. If we were told that we had to reduce energy by two-thirds, and that for much of the week we had to light our homes with candles, that probably wouldn’t go down too well. But renewable energy allows people to light their homes with the same convenience but without the downsides. It just comes out of the same plug socket. When it comes to food, cultured meat has the same potential – offering all the taste and cultural familiarity of traditional meat but without the slaughter.
That is why, with time so short and meat such a major driver of the planetary emergencies we all now face, we need a food revolution – and together with plant-based meats, cultured meat could be a trump card.
With so much at stake, the uptake of cultured meat cannot simply be left to the whim of the marketplace: it has to be part of a sustainable food strategy by governments, companies and the United Nations.
There is a pressing need for policymakers to set targets for the reduction of animal-sourced meat. Cultured meat holds the key to doing what is so necessary for a sustainable future without taking away the thing that so many want to eat: meat.
The time is now for governments worldwide, to get behind this new technology.
The European Commission and Parliamentarians in Brussels, together with EU Member State governments have the opportunity of taking a leadership position. Making sure that favourable legislation, public funding for research and strong backing is there to ensure that cultured meat can take off as we need it to.
By getting behind cultured meat now, we can all help create a truly sustainable and compassionate food system. To bring together food tech that is free from the horrors of animal factory farming. To bring together human intellect and compassion to create an intelligent and much-needed evolution of meat, and thereby a planet-saving food revolution. The future is in our hands.