Thursday, April 17, 2008

Landless Food Production: The Dawn Of Cultured Meat

There are 6.8 billion people on the planet today. In 1978, there were 4.4 billion people - an increase of 2.4 billion in just the last 30 years. That's twice the leap that we made in the full century between 1850 and 1950. It's expected that by 2050, there will be 9.7 billion inhabitants, almost 3 billion more people than there are today.

Not only will there be billions more people to feed, but an increasing percentage of those people are eating meat, owing to their move up the social ladder.

Below is a graph of meat consumption over the last half-century, made possible by increased meat production.1

But unless the world can trend the meat supply to match this kind of human growth... 2

... We're looking at imposed veganism for billions of human omnivores over the next 40 years and beyond. It's already happening:
"The increased supply is restricted to certain countries and regions, and is not occurring in the poorer African countries. Consumption of ASF* is declining in these countries, from an already low level, as population increases." 1

*Animal Source Foods

Enter cultured meat. The organization New Harvest is funding research into meat substitutes. Here's what they say about cultured meat:

What is cultured meat?
"The production of cultured meat begins by taking a number of cells from a farm animal and proliferating them in a nutrient-rich medium. Cells are capable of multiplying so many times in culture that, in theory, a single cell could be used to produce enough meat to feed the global population for a year."

"The resulting cells can then be harvested, seasoned, cooked, and consumed as a boneless, processed meat, such as sausage, hamburger, or chicken nuggets."
Why would anyone want to make cultured meat?
Cultured meat has the potential to be:
  • Healthier ("Fat content can be more easily controlled.")
  • Safer (Reduction in foodborne disease "thanks to strict quality control rules.")
  • Less polluting ("Inedible animal structures (bones, respiratory system, digestive system, skin, and the nervous system) need not be grown. As a result, cultured meat production should be more efficient than conventional meat production in its use of energy, land, and water; and it should produce less waste.")
  • More Humane (Peter Singer, an ethicist and animal rights activist at Princeton, defends it, "I'm all for the substitute.")
How does cultured meat taste?
"Nobody has yet tasted cultured meat to say for certain. ... There are a number of technical obstacles, especially regarding texture, that have to be overcome before cultured meat can be a compelling substitute for conventional meat."
Isn't this food unnatural?
"Cultured meat is unnatural, in the same way that bread, cheese, yogurt, and wine are unnatural. All involve processing ingredients derived from natural sources. Arguably, the production of cultured meat is less unnatural than raising farm animals in intensive confinement systems, injecting them with synthetic hormones, and feeding them artificial diets made up of antibiotics and animal wastes."
Is cultured meat genetically-modified?
Not at this time: "There is nothing in the production of cultured meat that necessarily involves genetic modification. The cells that can be used to produce cultured meat are muscle and stem cells from farm animals."
Are any animals killed in the production of cultured meat?
"Not necessarily. It is possible to take a muscle biopsy from a live farm animal and culture the isolated muscle cells."

New Harvest says cultured meat should be available in a few years. I wonder if it will fall under the charge of the USDA, and if they will allow "100% Natural" on the label.

This is creepy. By the looks of the comments under the New York Times' article last week, "Can People Have Meat And A Planet Too?", I'm not alone in thinking that.

P.S. - I'm also wondering how Christians and members of other faiths view this. Is it a form of abuse? Or a viable solution?
1 Global Production and Consumption of Animal Source Foods, The Journal of Nutrition, 2003
2 Wikipedia: World Population

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