It might have sounded like science fiction just a few years ago, but today it seems we are just few years away from having meat and leather that don’t require an animal to be killed. These cultured meat and leather products are grown in just a few labs right now, but one day will be mass produced in large facilities.
This may sound unlikely to many people, especially the detractors who point at the very first lab-grown burger that presented to the public just three years ago. That burger was cooked and eaten at a news conference on Aug. 5, 2013, to a mixed reception. But the biggest news wasn’t that the burger was grown or that it tasted like a real burger, but that it cost $325,000 to produce.
Even today, when it was reported that the same burger would cost $11.36 to produce in 2015, a drop of $324,988.64 in just two years, detractors still point at the obsolete $325,000 price tag.
But despite the semi-skeptical reception and purveying anti-biotech attitude of many in the public, lab-grown animal products are still moving forward. The latest development being the announcement that Brooklyn-based startup Modern Meadow, who on June 28 secured $40million in Series B Round funding, bringing their total funds raised to $53.5 million.
“Modern Meadow harnesses the combined power of design, biology and engineering to change the way we think about materials, unlocking the capabilities of nature. Leather, which represents a $100 billion raw material market, has always been prized for its beauty, functionality and enduring status, according to Modern Meadow CEO and co-founder Andras Forgacs. “Today, as a co-product of the meat industry, it is subject to fluctuations in availability, quality, price and growing demand. At Modern Meadow, we’re re-imagining this millennia-old material to create revolutionary new features without harming animals or the environment.”
Millions have also been invested in research and development for other companies, like Memphis Meats, a meat-growing startup.
According to Memphis Meats CEO and Co-founder, Uma Valeti, their goal is to have the meat available for retail by 2021.
Cultured meat is expected to have a widespread impact. It’s being touted for producing as little as 4 percent of the greenhouse gases produced by livestock, which is a positive for many of those concerned by environmental issues. This impact would also reach water bodies, which would be less susceptible from runoff that includes animal feces. Another big plus is that it would only require a fraction of the land required for cattle.
One example of the impact that raising livestock can be seen in our neighbors to the south in Central and South America. Since 1960 more than a quarter of rain-forest has been cleared for raising cattle and 70 percent in Costa Rica and Panama has been destroyed in conversion to rearing livestock, while in Brazil 40 percent of the land has been cleared for beef production, according to research biologist Brian J. Ford.
The livestock sector consumes 8 percent of all the fresh water in the world and occupies almost one-third of the world’s surface that isn’t not covered by ice and permafrost. It also contributes 18 per cent of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
Then, there’s also the idea that it could have a significant impact on the scarcity of food in the world. We are looking at a world population that is expected to keep increasing at least through 2100. Even though worldwide birthrates are declining — the average was 5.0 births per woman in 1960 and 2.5 births per woman in 2014, according to the World Bank — the population is living longer. Women in the U.S. alone are expected to have an average lifespan of 89-94 by 2050, according to the MacArthur Research Network, men lag behind at 83-86 years, according to ABC News. So, even though the number of people entering the world is decreasing, the rate at which people leaving it is decreasing as well.
Essentially, that means there’s going to be a lot of poor people in the world to feed and lots of people see cultured meat as the way to do that.
But is it safe? Some people are concerned about it being unnatural and whether it’s genetically modified.
According to New Harvest, cultured foods are unnatural in the same way that bread, cheese, yogurt, and wine are. Like those foods, cultured meat involves processing ingredients derived from natural sources. They also claim that production of cultured meat is less unnatural than raising farm animals in intensive confinement systems, That’s because in intensive farming systems use synthetic hormones, and artificial diets made up of antibiotics and animal wastes. Furthermore, the conventional production of meat has led to a number of health and environmental problems, including high rates of heart disease and food-borne illness, as well as soil and water pollution from farm animal wastes.
What kind of impact will it make? Likely a gradual one. After all, considering the power of industry lobbyists in the U.S., you can expect it to be tied up for years even after it’s on the shelves elsewhere.
And why wouldn’t the industry fight? You are looking at an industry that directly employs 482,100 workers in the U.S. who have combined salaries of more than $19 billion, according to the North American Meat Institute. While that’s by far not the largest industry in the U.S., the people it employs would still have to find something else to do.
As the many people who have lost manufacturing jobs over the 20th century can say, technology changes things. A lot of those changes lead to at least temporary job loss. It’s one of those things that comes with modernization. People, especially those who have their livelihoods tied to a given field, will resist.
But supply and demand will inevitably reign supreme and the majority of people will go for what’s cheaper as long as it doesn’t taste bad. That’s just how the world goes.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t expect animals to not be still raised for food. Except with jacked-up prices for “real meat.” Same product, different marketing strategy.
Whatever happens, it looks like cultured meat is coming and it’s going to change the world as we know it.