This article was originally published in December 2017. Last updated in June 2020.
The year is 2025. The world population has grown to 8.2 billion people. The global food system has changed dramatically in how we deliver food. Blockchain technology is starting to spread globally to improve food safety and bring transparency into the food supply chain. Getting protein from conventional animal sources has begun to become a practice of the past. Following the successful launch of products like cell-cultured meat and milk, cellular agriculture (‘cell ag’) products continue to enter the market. People have begun to shift their protein sources from conventional livestock products to a more environmentally friendly, healthy, and animal cruelty-free option. Cellular agriculture.
This future is still some time away, and there are quite a few steps that need to happen before cell ag reaches the level where it can take on the daunting task of trying to replace the livestock agriculture industry. This article highlights a few key milestones that will make this future without livestock a more likely one.
By the year 2025, 2/3 of the world population may encounter water shortages. Meanwhile, in the grocery store, there may be two identical 8-ounce (0.23kg) steaks that cost and taste the same. The first one is labelled ‘animal-grown’ and the other ‘cell-cultured’. The label on the first one shows that approximately 3,515 litres of water was used in its production as well as enough energy to fully charge one laptop sixty times, and it emitted 4.54kg of greenhouse gases. The other product’s label shows that a less than a tenth of the water and land was used in its production as well as significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions.
If this information was on the label of the two steaks, which product would you choose?
Photo taken from TedX presentation by Isha Datar: Rethinking Meat at TedxToronto, 2013
While there is still a lot time before a cell ag steak is ready for the market, the use of quantitative labels illustrates the environmental burden of conventional livestock. Even though ‘sustainability’ stickers already exist on products in grocery stores, these qualitative labels are not enough to motivate consumers. By presenting the numbers of both products in simple and easily accessible terms, consumers will become more aware of the environmental burden of the livestock meat in comparison to cell ag animal products and likely choose the more sustainable option. If successful, environmental impact labeling can go even further, like showing how cell ag products may also be free of antibiotics as well as cruelty-free.
Although a key step, quantitative information on sustainability labeling alone will not be enough to shift public perception of cellular agriculture. To fully address and overcome any negative public perception, it will be important for all actors in the field to be as transparent and clear about all of their scientific findings as well as all aspects of manufacturing the products.
As the world population skyrockets, some people have called for a global shift to a plant-based diet without any livestock or cellular agriculture products at all. While livestock alternatives, like plant and insect proteins, are more environmentally sustainable than livestock, the reality is that the there is a rising global demand for animal products. It is predicted that the global demand for animal products will rise from 60 billion animals in 2016 to 100 billion animals in 2050. By 2020, the total meat imports into China will be 6 million tons. Considering this demand, any calls for diet shifts away from animal products is simply not realistic. Having said that, it is not feasible to maintain current agricultural practices and feed the world sustainably.
While considered an ‘alternative’ due to its production process, cellular agriculture derived meat still consists of the same muscle tissue as the conventional livestock product. It is still animal meat. The only difference is that one is produced in a more sustainable manner and less of an environmental burden. As such, cellular agriculture provides the mean to sustainably supply the demand of global animal products that conventional livestock would not be able to do. This is reflected in agribusiness giants like Cargill investing in Memphis Meat’s Series A funding round of $17 million.
The biggest milestone in a future where cell ag will replace conventional livestock products is the successful scaling up of the production process to be commercially viable. There are many important aspects to consider in scaling, including determining the growth serum (cell culture medium), that are still under research. Other important aspects that need to be considered include scaling up bioreactors so that they will be ready for large-scale production.
Since Just (formerly Hampton Creek) initially planned to release their commercially produce cultured meat by 2018 and Memphis Meats plans to be commercial in 2021, it looks like there have been major breakthroughs in the scaling process. As new products on the market, it is expected to be initially more expensive than conventional animal products. However, as the scaling process in these companies continue, the cost will go down to the point where it is competitive with the price of conventional livestock products
With the rising demand for animal products like meat and an increased public awareness of the environmental problems of animal products, the future scenario described will happen with the scaling of cellular agriculture companies and products. While a complete future without livestock agriculture is not feasible by 2025, it is important to recognize that cellular agriculture alone cannot completely replace conventional livestock farming. Many important products that we regularly use come from animals that we do not (yet!) have the technology to authentically produce without animals, like wool.
Having said that, a future where cellular agriculture becomes a main source of protein is not far away. The global demand for meat will continue to rise as will the pressure from informed consumers to push away from unsustainable and resource-heavy livestock agricultural practices. It is expected that cellular agriculture products will initially complement conventional livestock products as cell ag companies continue to scale production before it has the capability down the road to properly compete with the livestock agriculture market.
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