When meat can be grown in a lab from cell cultures, not in an animal’s body, is it still meat? Arguably yes, it’s still meat, but it might also be the “clean meat” that promises a lower-carbon diet without having to go vegetarian.
One of the most common eco-friendly habits being recommended by many in the green scene is to eat less meat, due to animal agriculture’s relative inefficiency and heavy toll on resources such as farmland and water. Agriculture, especially the production of meat and dairy products, is responsible for a huge share of greenhouse gas emissions, and by cutting back on the amount of meat and animal proteins in the diet, consumers can help to be a part of the climate solution.
However, reducing meat and dairy consumption is more of a stop-gap measure than anything else, because the industry still produces a heckuva lot of cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals for human consumption, and to do so, it still requires massive amounts of feed and water, along with the disposal of the wastes that are a byproduct of raising livestock.
Although vegetarians and vegans would argue that it’s certainly possible, even pleasurable and healthy, to give up animal proteins, the fact that only a small percentage of people in the global West even attempt to go meat-free is an indication that although going vegetarian may be good for the climate, it’s not an easy sell by any means. And even as some companies are actively pursuing a better-tasting and more meat-like meat substitute, others are looking to the production of animal proteins that doesn’t require raising an actual animal.
To move things in the food industry to a whole other level in terms of climate impacts, some high-powered investors are betting that the next big thing in meat production is to take the animal completely out of the equation and to simply grow the meat itself without having to raise full-sized animals. This lab-grown meat, a term that practically cries for some better branding (animal-free meat? slaughterless meat?), promises to convert meat production from a resource-intensive practice full of inhumane treatment of the animals into one that can ‘grow’ the animal proteins without requiring the rest of the animal, and one that minimizes the environmental impacts of meat production.
One company that is looking to break into the meat production business with its lab-grown products is Memphis Meats, which just got a big vote of confidence from some funding heavyweights, including billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson, as well as a venture capital firm and the traditional agriculture giant Cargill, Inc. The recent round of funding, which raised some $17 million, was led by the venture capital firm DFJ (which also bought into Tesla, Skype, SpaceX, and others), and a number of other VC firms, which speaks to the potential that this animal-free meat has to disrupt the market.
“The world loves to eat meat, and it is core to many of our cultures and traditions. Meat demand is growing rapidly around the world. We want the world to keep eating what it loves.” – Uma Valeti, M.D., co-founder and CEO of Memphis Meats
According to the company’s press release, Memphis Meats is planning to use the influx of money to “continue developing delicious products, to accelerate its work in scaling up clean meat production, and to reduce production costs to levels comparable to – and ultimately below – conventional meat costs.”
The company currently only produces small amounts of its lab-grown meats, in the form of “synthesized beef, chicken and duck,” but it has managed to reduce the timeframe for growing animal proteins down to about three to six weeks, and could potentially offer consumers animal proteins at a price at or below conventional meat if the operation can be effectively scaled up.
And as a huge plus, these lab-grown meats could help reduce the greenhouse emissions associated with eating meat, perhaps even eliminating them, with investor Richard Branson to tell Bloomberg News that he believes that “in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.”
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