01/08/2013 13:48 BST | Updated 01/10/2013 06:12 BST

Why Lab-Grown Meat Is the Future of Food


On 5 August, a select group of scientists, members of the media and gastronomes will be invited to try their first taste of in vitro meat at a ceremony in London. Dr Mark Post, a bio-scientist from the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, will host this taste-testing event that offers the first-ever opportunity to sample the hamburger that he has grown in his laboratory from real bovine muscle tissue. It may surprise readers to learn that, among the funders of in vitro meat development in various countries - although not of this particular project - is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) US.

Why would a vegan-advocacy organisation actually fund the production of meat? For much the same reason that Bill Gates is sponsoring companies that are producing soya-based meat taste-alike products: Because if we want to reshape the future of the environment and still produce enough food to feed the world's booming population, we must reshape the future of meat production. Clearly, our main interest is in ending animal suffering, so we have stifled our revulsion at flesh-eating for a higher cause: to champion a breakthrough that could mean a far kinder world for billions of animals.

Cultured meat is made from the same animal tissue that makes up conventional meat. But instead of being grown in an animal's body, it is grown in a nutrient-rich, pristine environment, like the way cultured yogurt and hydroponic vegetables are. The rooms in which the meat is to be grown, called "carneries", can be several stories high, eliminating the need to bulldoze forest land to make more room to grow the crops to feed farmed animals. The UN cites livestock production as a "key factor" in deforestation, especially in Latin America, where vast swaths of rain-forest land have been cleared for cattle grazing. Today, approximately 30 per cent of the Earth's land mass is used to graze animals or grow feed crops for them.

And cultured meat can quash climate change in more ways than one. Together, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane cause the vast majority of global warming. Raising animals for food is one of the largest sources of carbon-dioxide emissions and the single largest source of both nitrous-oxide and methane emissions. Producing enormous amounts of grain to feed to farmed animals, then killing and processing the animals as well as transporting and storing their flesh, requires massive amounts of fossil fuels, which equals massive amounts of carbon dioxide. In addition, the billions of animals on factory farms produce methane during digestion, and as the acres of cesspools that are filled with the animals' waste decompose, they create a staggering 65 per cent of the world's nitrous-oxide emissions. Scientists estimate that industrialised cultured meat production would generate 78 to 96 per cent less greenhouse gas than would conventional factory farming.

But despite the vast amounts of land, water and fossil fuels that we devote to raising animals for food, nearly 1 billion people are still undernourished. Why? Because of the gross inefficiency of meat production. It takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce just 1 pound of animal flesh. Because lab-grown meat doesn't need to be "fed", we could give those same crops to human beings, thereby tackling world hunger if we have the will to do it.

Meat produced in a laboratory is also far safer for human consumption. The aseptic environment eliminates the risk that the meat could be infected with bacteria from factory-farm filth, such as E. coli, campylobacter and salmonella. Mad-cow disease and avian influenzas cannot spread in an in vitro laboratory the way they can on a factory farm or at a live-animal market. And in vitro meat is free of the antibiotics that permeate much animal flesh. Crammed together in warehouses and often mired in their own waste, animals are given massive doses of antibiotics to keep them alive, even if barely, despite filthy conditions. But earlier this year, England's Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, called the danger posed by the growing resistance to antibiotics a "ticking time bomb". Obviously, in a laboratory, no alarms need sound.

In addition to all these considerations, severe crowding and mutilations (such as the debeaking of chickens) and many other miseries are visited upon animals, and their slaughter is often prolonged and painful. Chickens and turkeys are shackled upside down by their fragile legs, and their throats are slit. If their heads miss the cutting blade, the birds are conscious when they are plunged into tanks of boiling water meant to remove their feathers. Undercover footage has shown pigs alive and squealing when they reach the scalding tank that removes their hair and softens their skin. Because of improper stunning techniques, cows may be conscious when their throats are cut and their bodies dismembered.

If in vitro technology can help end massive animal suffering, reverse environmental damage, reduce world hunger and make the food supply safer, wouldn't everyone wish to support it?