In this 2nd part to meet the future of meat, where meat production will shift from cattle to in vitro cell-based systems, let me give you a few statistics. I am not a vegetarian myself and although my meat consumption is dwindling over the years, the statistics are given from an objective point-of-view.
The FAO estimates that due to the increasing world population and wealth development, the global meat consumption will increase from the current 320 million ton to 717 million ton in 2022. Due to increased efficiency and breeding techniques, the number of people that could be fed from the production of an average farmer have increased about 20 fold in the last century. However, if we reach the 2022 numbers with the current production methods, there will be several factors that have reached a tipping point. It will simply be impossible and something’s gotta give.
Only 26% of the earth total land surface is arable land. Currently 83% is used to rear life stock or produce feed stock for the animals. And all this to provide only 18% of the world’s calories and only 37% of our protein supply. Even if we stack cattle in vertical farming silo’s, the required feedstock will not be sufficient as the conversion factor is too low to be sustainable. For example it takes 32 kg feed to produce 1 kg of beef.
The total amount of freshwater used to produce 1 kg beef is even more impressive: 15,410 litres (this includes water use for feed crops). Considering that freshwater eutrophication is directly linked to the meat industry and is a major contributor to water pollution. Freshwater is an increasingly scarce resource, essential for all life.
It is estimated that 15% of greenhouse gases are produced by the meat industry (CO2 and the 30x more potent methane). In the attempts to delay global warming, this is not a factor we can ignore. Improvements in bio availability (e.g. via addition of phytase) have only minor impact.
Industrial size meat producers often maintain unnatural high densities of animals, often kept indoors to prevent the influx of diseases. Still, unless you grow animals in high-containment environments, diseases WILL enter either via insect vectors, bird droppings, rodents, feed contaminations or employees. To mitigate this risk, animals are on a “prevention” diet, ingesting a wide range of anitbiotics on a permanent basis. This has the very risky side-effect of creating super-bugs, i.e. bacteria that are resistant to almost every antibiotic. This makes a simple bacterial infection as deadly again for humans as it was a century ago.
Besides all the practical hurdles stated above, you must realize that the species we use for mass production all have feelings, character traits, habits, fears or in other words, they do experience a quality of life or the lack thereof. As consumers we try to anonimize the packaged meat that we see in the supermarkets, but they all did originate from animals that almost without exception had a very poor or I would even say cruel life. Farmers in general have more compassion for their animals then consumers and they try to treat their livestock as best as they can, but in order to survive the price pressure, they have to go into mass production, cutting corners wherever they can.
Nutritional value & cultural habits
Although vegatarians are able to take all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals that their bodies require from a well-balanced diet, there is no dispute that the omnivore homo sapiens can improve their diet when at least occasionally they eat some meat or fish.
When the world population develops and accumulates wealth, the demand for meat goes up as more people can afford it. FAO and EY studies indicate that the number of people moving from the bottom of the wealth pyramid ($2-8 / day) to the middle of the pyramid ($10-60 / day) will grow from 2 B in 2015, to 7 B in 2050. Even if meat becomes more expensive there will be 2-3x more demand in the decades ahead. It tastes good and brings status, irresistable.
This is not only unsustainable, it is simply impossible.
Is there any other way we can fill this dietary demand for meat in a more efficient, environmentally friendly way? Not yet, but the developments in the last 5 years have shown that there may be an alternative on the horizon: in vitro cultured meat. Full life cycle calculations show a 99% reduction in land use, 96% less water, 96% less green house gasses and a significant reduction in deforestation, pesticides and fertilizers. Will it ever compete with the current meat industry?
This is not to replace a prime beef T-bone steak from a farm that is certified to maintain ethical standards (it takes more then some lab-grown muscle cells to match that level of quality), but it will eventually be targeting the industrial productions that goes into “anonymous” food, such as hamburger patties, sausages, pizza toppings, soup fillings etc. In other words, the bulk of meat processing that is causing so much damage.
The advances of in vitro meat production will be the subject of the 3rd part in this series.