The future of food is meatless, or at least animal-less if Virgin Group founder Richard Branson has anything to do with it. The billionaire is a key investor in Memphis Meats, a startup company aiming to grow sustainable cultured meat. Branson said in a blog post at the time of the investment: “I believe 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. One day we will look back and think how archaic our grandparents were in killing animals for food.”
Pondering the future of food is a hot topic across many industries and sectors as people grapple with the notion of how to feed our growing population. One strong contender is a future where animals won’t be killed for meat, rather we will grow the meat in labs.
Meat production is a highly polluting and generally inefficient industry, not to mention the obvious ethical questions that come with the raising of animals for consumption. Memphis Meats has a host of big-name investors beyond Branson that includes Bill Gates and Kimbal Musk. Branson who became a vegetarian in 2014 is backing the company to literally put his money where his mouth is in regards to his prediction about the future of meat consumption.
Agriculture places huge pressures on the earth's natural resources. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that 13 billion hectares (32.1 billion acres) of forest are destroyed each year in order to create more land for crops and pastures. The production of meat isn’t just purely the pastures used to raise animals there is a huge resource dedicated to growing food for these animals to eat, the FOA predict that the production of livestock food consumes 26 percent of the ice-free land. On top of all that the WorldWatch Institute has stated that 51 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture.
So, is growing meat in labs the answer? The companies making lab meat will assert it's a healthier and more sustainable alternative than traditional meat as it is free from antibiotics, dangerous bacteria, and growth-promoting hormones. Memphis Meats described their goals, saying "We're developing a way to produce real meat from animal cells, without the need to feed, breed and slaughter actual animals. We expect our products to be better for the environment (requiring up to 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, land and water than conventionally-produced meat), the animals and public health. And most importantly, they're delicious.”
Recent research has also started to show that perhaps ‘regular’ meat is actually bad for us. In 2015, a branch of the World Health organization, The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” and processed meats as “carcinogenic to humans.” While the part of the meat that is bad for us isn’t exactly clear it might have something to do with heme iron. Something that lab-grown meat can actually be created without. Lab-grown meat can also be made without saturated fat, making it arguably healthier.
But whether or not you agree with the science, the bottom line is that meat production as we know it is simply not sustainable. If the world population continues to grow at the expected rate, finding alternative sources of food will become the priority in every nation on earth.