Why In Vitro Meat?

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations' recent report "Livestock's long shadow - environmental issues and options", global production of meat is projected to more than double from 229x109 kg/year in 1999/2000 to 465x109 kg/year in 2050 (Steinfeld et al. 2006, FAO document). The bulk of growth will occur in developing countries through intensive production systems where economies of scale will cause a steady increase of the size of operations. It is expected that the future growth of livestock output will be based on similar growth rates for feed concentrate use.

The total area occupied by livestock grazing is around 34x106 km2, which is equivalent to 26 % of the land surface area of the planet (Steinfeld et al. 2006). The total area used for feedcrop production is about 4.7x106 km2, equivalent to 33 % of all cropland. Most of this cropland is located in OECD countries, but some developing countries are rapidly expanding their feedcrop production, notably maize and soybean in South America, in particular Brazil. The total remaining area suitable for rain-fed production is estimated to be about 28x106 km2, of which 45 % is forest area (12.6x106 km2) (Steinfeld et al. 2006). Livestock contribute about 9 % of total carbon dioxide emissions, 37 % of methane and 65 % of nitrous oxide. In terms of CO2 equivalents the gaseous emissions from livestock production amounts to about 18 % of the global warming effects. This is more than the contribution from the total transportation sector. Concerning polluting gaseous emissions not linked to climate change, livestock waste contributes 68 % of total emissions of ammonia (30x109 kg/year) (Steinfeld et al. 2006). About 0.13x106 km2 of forest is lost per year and the majority is converted to agricultural land (Steinfeld et al. 2006).

Besides the environmental impact of meat production, large scale farming and worldwide transport of livestock and animal products have contributed to a surge of infectious diseases that not only affect animals but also pose a threat to humans all over the world (Tilman et al. 2002). Moreover, in Western societies there is an increasing concern about the animal welfare issues attached to industrialized production (Croney and Millman 2007) where normal economic principles force the development of production routines where living animals are treated as inanimate capitalistic commodities.

In a business as usual perspective: (i) the spatial and commercial concentration of livestock production will continue to grow, (ii) the pressure on crop agriculture to expand will remain high, and the associated environmental impacts, in terms of deforestation, water depletion, climate change and biodiversity loss, will grow, (iii) livestock contribution to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions will increase, and (iv) livestock-induced degradation of the world's arid and semi-arid lands will continue, in particular in Africa and South and Central Asia (Steinfeld et al. 2006).

It is a tremendous political and economic challenge to change this grim scenario into a more sustainable one if we continue to base our meat consumption solely on production of animals. It will demand sacrifices that are probably well beyond what will be accepted by the majority of citizens in developed countries. One way to get out of this predicament is to exploit the potential of modern biotechnology and process technology to produce meat from normal muscle progenitor cells in bioreactors at an industrial scale. If this production strategy were to replace a substantial part of the current meat production regime, this may allow development of a downsized animal production industry which can acquire a competitive edge in the upper-level meat market by documenting that it is ecologically sound and meets basic animal welfare requirements.

An environmentally friendly cultured meat technology rests on four basic premises: (1) the culturing of stem cells from farm animals of choice that are able to proliferate at a high rate but that do not differentiate, (2) the efficient differentiation of these stem cells into muscle cells that contain all nutrients present in conventional meat, (3) the application of a growth medium that does not contain animal products, and (4) the organisation of the muscle cells into 3-dimensional muscle structures.

References

1. Croney, C. C., S. T. Millman. 2007. Board-invited review: The ethical and behavioural bases for farm animal welfare legislation. Journal of Animal Science, 85: 556-565.

2. Steinfeld, H., P. Gerber, T. Wassenaar, V. Castel, M. Rosales, C. de Haan. 2006. Livestock's long shadow - Environmental issues and options, FAO document, 390 pp.

3. Tilman, D., K. G. Cassman, P. A. Matson, R. Naylor, S. Polasky. 2002. Agricultural sustainability and intensive production practices. Nature, 418: 671-677.