Is Lab Grown Meat the Future?

Documentary filmmaker Liz Marshall is about to release a documentary, Meat the Future, on how new food science grows meat from cells without the need to breed, raise and slaughter animals.

The film, from the documentary Channel, tells an exclusive story about an enormous new idea that offers hope to the world. It is about the pioneers behind the birth of the “cell-based meat” industry: a food science that grows real meat from animal cells without the need to breed, raise and slaughter animals. I chronicled this story over three and a half years, between 2016 and 2019.

Sounds interesting. I keep up to date with the latest news on this subject, but the news tends to be shallow.

Prior to making feature-length documentaries, I spent a decade traveling the globe making films for broadcasters and for non-governmental organizations about some of the most pressing social justice issues of our time. I filmed in war zones, in sweatshops and across sub-Saharan Africa bearing witness to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. I felt the weight of responsibility in filming people’s real stories with intimate access, and I felt despair and helplessness when I considered the magnitude of social and economic injustice. I realized that our planet — the one home that unites us all — was in peril and that, as a privileged Canadian filmmaker, I could make a difference.

This makes me less interested. Someone focused on social justice is unlikely to do this subject, which equal parts bioscience and economics, justice.

My first feature documentary, Water on the Table (2010), was about the fight to protect water against the levers of privatization. It led me to make my 2013 animal rights film, The Ghosts in Our Machine, which focused on the invisibility of billions of animals that are exploited for food, fashion, entertainment and biomedical research. Ghosts was seen by hundreds of thousands of viewers across the globe, on every continent, and continues to be used as a consciousness-raising tool, gently removing people’s blinders to this complex moral issue.

I agree with having government prevent private companies from destroying natural water supplies. This is one of the few areas where government regulation can be good: prevention of a “tragedy of the commons”. While I don’t think using animals for food or biomedical research is immoral, I am personally against their unnecessary exploitation.

Through my work, my eyes were opened fully to the need for transformation, so I wanted my next feature documentary to be laser-focused on a big, viable solution. In 2016, a light bulb went off when I came across the novel and commercial development of cell-based meat, also referred to as “clean meat,” “cultivated meat” and “cultured meat.”

Seeing lab grown meat primarily as a solution to the ‘problem’ of humans eating animals is focusing on one of its least compelling attributes.

I was certain about making Meat the Future after meeting Dr. Uma Valeti, a Mayo Clinic–trained cardiologist and the visionary CEO and co-founder of Memphis Meats, the world’s first cell-based meat company. “This has been something that I’ve been dreaming about since I was a kid, thinking about the impact on human lives and animal lives, and the ills of food production,” says Valeti in the film.

Call me cynical, but I would expect the CEO of a lab grown meat company to use these arguments to push their company and products. I guess I’ll have to watch the documentary to judge his sincerity for myself.

Food trends come and go, but meat has been a staple of human civilization for millennia. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations notes that worldwide meat production is projected to double by 2050. According to the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the world’s population is expected to expand to 9.8 billion by that time.

Finally, we come to one of the issues that lab grown meat may help us to address. Eating meat is not a “food trend”. Consumption of animal protein is what allowed homonids to evolve the large brains that enabled speech, tool making, and everything that makes us human. The burden that farmed meat puts upon our limited resources is a huge issue. Sustainable alternatives will be needed, at least in the near term.

Since the post-war era, suppliers have innovated production to be more efficient, allowing them to produce meat faster, at larger scale and with greater output. But this has been at the expense of the billions of animals that suffer under cruel conditions, enduring repetitive breeding and gestation, the physical impacts of  growth hormones, confinement, long transport and slaughter. Kill-floor workers suffer psychological and physical stress, too, so it’s not an ideal situation for people either.

As I said, farming animals for meat is not immoral. I would prefer it was done in as humane a ways as possible. An alternative whose only benefit is that farm animals won’t be involved in it’s production is not going to fly. There must be other more compelling reasons to turn from the status quo.

Animal agriculture also takes up roughly 45 per cent of the global land surface area, and research shows its direct impact on climate change: by 2013, the FAO noted, 14.5 per cent of human-induced global greenhouse gas emissions could be attributed to the livestock sector.

This is a somewhat more compelling argument, assuming that lab grown meat has significantly lower emissions than farming. What would drive enough adoption to make a difference?

According to research published by the Good Food Institute, when compared to conventional beef at scale, cell-based beef has the potential to reduce land use by more than 95 per cent, climate change emissions by 74 to 87 per cent, and nutrient pollution (a type of water pollution) by 94 per cent.

The land use argument is significant in places like Brazil, where deforestation is occurring. In the long term, returning grazing land to forested parkland would also reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. If these numbers for emissions reductions are accurate, they are also significant.

It is life changing, deeply fulfilling and often exhausting to make feature documentaries. I am reflective about our human evolution. We need solutions, urgently — transformation for people, for animals and for our planet. We do not know when cultivated  meat will be in grocery stores, available at scale, but its journey into the world and revolutionary promise — as featured in Meat the Future — is a story that I hope opens hearts and minds to what is possible.

While I’m happy this documentary was made, I would like to see more about the cost and health benefits of lab grown meat. These are the most compelling arguments that will drive it’s adoption, IMO.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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