Cell-based meat, lab-grown meat, clean meat, cultivated meat, cultured meat... call it what you like, we all know it’s now big business. Take Future Meat Technologies, a start-up that’s just raised $14 million in its Series A funding round. Or even Aleph Farm's cellular offering made in space.
Will the sector continue skyrocketing into the mainstream? According to RethinkX, a US market research firm, we are in the midst of the “fastest, deepest, most consequential disruption of food and agriculture in history”. It predicts in a report that the dairy and cattle industries will collapse by 2030 as animal meat is replaced by cheaper, higher-quality food made from manufactured protein.
Fermentation farms, it reckons, will make meat analogues and other protein-rich foods with greater variety at a fraction of the cost, providing health-boosting nutritional benefits with minimal negative environmental impact.
An erudite case against cultured meat
The current interest in cell-based meat and meat analogues is being strongly driven by the perceived climate change impacts of animal farming. But how robust are the statistics behind these arguments, especially in relation to greenhouse gases and climate change impacts?, asks Robert Verkerk, founder of the Alliance for Natural Health International.
In a post which challenges the case for cultured meat as envisioned by RethinkX he says that much of the data used to malign beef farming derives from grain-fed industrial farming systems and ignores “data from low intensity pasture-fed animals that graze on marginal lands that aren’t suitable for other uses.” This data often focuses only on emissions, and overlooks the key role that pasture-based grazing systems can have in the sequestration of carbon and the development of a diverse soil microbiome.
For example, he cites a widely cited figure from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN proposes that about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions originate from livestock. “But this figure doesn’t take into account the carbon that is sequestered in the pastures on which the animals are grazed – where they are still grazed.”
What’s more, the data tend to focus on Europe or the US. That’s not good enough, says Verkerk, bearing in mind the contributions of China, India, Russia, and the region in which greenhouse gas emissions are rising faster than anywhere else: sub-Saharan Africa.
‘It’s only red meat from industrially-farmed, grain-fed animals that’s harmful’
The health benefits of cutting meat consumption are similarly ambiguous, he believes. “Currently, the consensus view from population-wide (epidemiological) studies is that red meat and processed meat consumption are harmful,” he wrote. “But most of these data are subject to residual confounding, because those who consume less red or processed meats usually have healthier diets and lifestyles.”
There is also evidence suggesting elderly people benefit from increased animal protein intake. In addition. “We already have plenty of empirical evidence that red meat from pasture-fed animals is beneficial, assuming we don’t damage the meat when we cook it, forming, for example, carcinogenic PAHs (polyaromatic hydrocarbons).”
The current anti-meat zeitgeist may shift again, notes Verkerk, “as we discover, conclusively, that it’s only red meat from industrially-farmed, grain-fed animals that’s harmful, this being the predominant production system from which consumption patterns have so far been studied.”
Let's not confuse the nutritional profile of lab-grown meat with that of a pasture-fed animal either. “Just as we know fat-rich marbled meats from pasture-raised animals deliver a very different nutritional profile to lean minced beef derived from a factory farm,” pointed out Verkerk.
We can’t ignore the fact that humans have evolved as omnivores, he adds. “And lab-grown meat at this stage isn't bioequivalent to the meats that have been associated with our evolution. It's not just about the protein. It's the composition and nature of the protein, and it's also the fats, minerals and other nutrients we get from animal foods, especially when they are raised in an agro-ecological, non-industrial, context.”
Lab-grown meat versus agroecological farming
Can lab-grown meats deliver a more complete nutritional profile in time?, he asks. “Theoretically yes, as they're based on stem cells. But frankly it's too early to tell if this is part of the longer-term commercial plan.”
It’s also not as simple as that. Other options are needed that put sustainability, planetary and human health centre stage. One of these is in the field of agroecology – a form of sustainable farming which shuns chemical fertilizers, pesticides or artificial genetic modification – and which is entirely missing from the RethinkX report.
“There is an abundance of work that demonstrates that agroecological farming systems are both sustainable and viable at scale” noted Verkerk. “These systems, typically, include livestock and it's an area in which there's a lot of exciting innovation now that we understand more about the complexity of the relationship between plants, animals and microorganisms.”
Verkerk concludes that we have sufficient data to rush ahead with cell-based agriculture and accelerate the demise of agroecological farming.
“We’re not going to get the data needed to do any kind of side-by-side comparison if we ditch traditional livestock and dairy farming by 2030, as predicted by the RethinkX authors. My view is that we need to prioritise restoring agriculture, soils and rural communities. It's not about going backwards, it's about going forward, eyes wide open, but recognising the intimate relationship we have with the world around us, and within us.”