A revolution in the food industry
The food industry has faced a lot of criticism over the years when it comes to the production of meat. You don’t have to be a staunch vegetarian to recognise that the consumption of animal proteins has had some detrimental consequences. Excessive meat consumption has been blamed for declining human health, animal cruelty, environmental pollution. . . not to mention taking up a lot of land (30 per cent of the world’s arable surface). These are just a few of the arguments levied against the traditional meat industry, and could explain why people are increasingly reducing the amount of meat that they eat. In the UK alone, veganism has increased by 350 per cent over 10 years. The downsides to not eating meat seem to be few, other than missing out on meat if it’s something you enjoy. But now it appears scientists have found a way to create cruelty free meat without the negative side effects – or have they?
Meet meatless meat
Meat and dairy alternatives are a common sight on supermarket shelves, but they are far removed from the proteins that they supplement. However, thanks to a number of research teams, the idea that meat can be created without requiring the slaughter of animals is no longer a pipedream. Various businesses already claim they’ve created proteins that are suitable for human consumption that look and taste just like regular meat and poultry. The process of making ‘lab meat’ is also known as cellular farming. San Francisco based company Memphis Meats, for instance, grows chicken from cultured animal cells. Regulations permitting, their chicken will go on sale in 2021. Another company, Mosa Meat, plans to sell lab grown burgers in bulk. Their first burger cost a staggering $330,000, but prices are dropping rapidly. If you’re a vegetarian who really misses bacon, this all sounds pretty amazing. However, the process behind creating artificial meat currently relies on foetal bovine serum, which means that animals are still being used. This means that lab meat certainly isn’t vegan, and could seriously put vegetarians off too. Lab meats might remove the need to breed, feed and then kill an animal, but it’s definitely not without its setbacks.
How will lab meat impact the food industry?
New consumer trends have already caused businesses in the food and retail industry to think differently about their products, aiming to appeal to ethically and environmentally conscious minds. The introduction of lab grown meat is bound to affect these sectors, giving marketers another tool with which to entice consumers. Creating proteins without the traditional associated processes could also help to alleviate world hunger, especially in developing countries where production is far more labour and resource intensive. As well as offering a partial solution to food demand, these products could lead to societal changes by enabling more people to adopt a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. If you’re wondering what a universally vegan world might look like, this could be it. Mockumentaries aside, if consumers react well to lab meat, livestock farming could face a serious challenge. If you can make something that tastes exactly like meat but is more cost effective and ethically friendly, why bother running a farm or an abattoir? This isn’t just bad news for livestock workers – it’s potentially damaging for livestock, too. Many of the animal breeds we have today exist purely for human consumption. Without this demand, these breeds could gradually die out. Luckily for them, it seems that the adoption of lab meat in commercial markets largely relies on regulations – and this is a complicated subject to say the least. Although companies aren’t strictly creating living organisms, they are attempting to replicate them exactly. If laboratories are given the go ahead to make meat, what other questionable experiments could come from it? Perhaps the most poignant disruption caused by the abandonment of traditional meat production are the changes it would cause to the face of the earth. 30 per cent of the world’s surface is used for livestock farming. If you change farming, you change the planet itself.
Whether you grow a burger in a laboratory or a field, there will always be ethical issues involved. Unfortunately, it sounds as if completely cruelty free meat is just too good to be true. However, as more people transition into alternative diets, it’s becoming more important for companies to recognise and cater to them. In future, refined methods could present a better and cheaper alternative to those currently used by research teams. However, although vegetarianism, veganism and pescatarianism are undoubtedly on the rise, many people are quite happy to tuck into a grass fed steak. Until omnivores cease to dominate the market, the traditional meat industry will continue to thrive.
Should regulators allow lab grown proteins to become publicly available? How might consumers react to lab meat? Can lab meat really be described as ethical? Share your thoughts and opinions.