The biggest meat corporations are now waking up to the fact that meat production takes a massive toll on the environment. Meat giant Tyson Foods, Inc. recently launched a $150m venture capital fund on sustainable food (1). For example, part of the fund includes a 5% ownership stake in plant-based meat producer Beyond Meat.
Animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (2), which is more than that caused by all transportation combined. In addition, it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef of water (2), whereas it only takes 147 gallons to produce 1 pound of corn (3).
So as we can see, raising livestock for meat is extremely detrimental for the environment, and involves a huge amount of resources compared to growing grains.
More investment in plant-based alternatives may be a step in the right direction. But by 2050, there will be 2 billion more people on the planet (4), who, like the population today, will be demanding cheap meat, eggs and dairy. Given the massive environmental threats posed by animal agriculture (5), the situation will only get worse as the global population increases. So what can be done?
Worldwide, only 0.5% of the population are vegan, so it’s unlikely that we’ll see this increase by a significant percentage by 2050. On the other hand, China’s plan to cut meat consumption by 50% (6) has been welcomed by climate campaigners.
China consumes 28% of the world’s meat, so the environmental impact of this measure will be positive. However, it could be risky to keep our fingers crossed and hope for a worldwide adoption of these measures. But technology may have the answer for this critical issue, letting us have our cake and eat it.
In August 2013, Dutch scientists produced the world’s first lab-grown burger (7). They claim that within a few years lab-produced meats will start appearing in supermarkets and restaurants. If people are able to get over the ick factor of eating meat grown in a lab, the environmental benefits may prove persuasive for the consumer.
A 2011 study calculated that growing meat in labs would cut down on the land required to produce steaks, sausages and bacon by 99%, and reduce the water needed for animal agriculture by 90%. It would also produce a lot less GHG emissions.
The use of antibiotics in meat production is a huge danger to human health (8). But Professor Mark Post, who has been leading the Dutch team behind lab-grown, says they do not use antibiotics in their products because the sterile lab process does not require them. There is, however, still work to be done, as lab-grown meat doesn’t taste quite like the real thing, but it’s ‘almost’ the same (9).
Prof Mark Post on lab-grown meat. Photo by régine debatty
About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe
I’m currently a Writer at The Canary, covering issues relating to the food industry, drugs, health, well-being and nutrition. I’m also a Blogger for Inspiring Interns, where I offer careers advice for graduates. If you have a story you want me to cover, drop me a message on Twitter (@samwoolfe). You can also check out my travel blog (samreflectsontravel.com) and personal blog (www.samwoolfe.com) to read my articles on philosophy, psychology, and more opinion-related content.