Commentary / World

Vegetarians, carnivores and technology

by Gwynne Dyer

“Right now, growing cells as meat instead of animals is a very expensive process,” said Yaakov Nahmias, founder and chief scientist of Israel-based startup Future Meat Technologies. But it will get cheaper, and it probably will be needed.

Global population is heading for 10 billion by 2050. Average global incomes will triple by then, enabling more people to eat meat-rich diets. “We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before,” says professor Tim Lang of the University of London, one of the 37 scientific co-authors from 16 countries who wrote a report by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health that launched on Friday. But we’ve heard it all before.

It takes 7 kg of grain to grow 1 kg of beef. Seventy percent of the world’s fresh water is used to irrigate crops. We have appropriated three-quarters of the world’s fertile land for food production, and we’ll need the rest by 2050. The world’s stocks of seafood will have collapsed by 2050. It’s all true, but we’re sick of being nagged.

And still they bang on. The EAT-Lancet Commission even has a diet that will save the planet. Cut your beef consumption by 90 percent. Eat more beans and pulses, and more nuts and seeds. Going vegetarian or vegan will help even more. That’s all true too — but I don’t think it’s going to happen.

Or at least, it’s not going to happen by everybody turning vegan, vegetarian or just “flexitarian.” No doubt there will in due course be high taxes on meat and fish, and official propaganda campaigns to persuade people to change their eating habits, and some people will change.

Some people already have: The Vegan Society in the United Kingdom claims that the number of vegans in Britain has quadrupled in the last four years. But not enough people will switch to a plant-based diet soon enough, or maybe ever. We need to bring the rest of the population along, and few things are more persistent than cultural dietary preferences. Like eating meat.

The most enthusiastic meat-eaters are in the richer countries, and as other countries join their club (like China), they start eating more meat too. So clearly there would be a huge market for real meat that didn’t come from animals, but tastes and feels right in the mouth, and doesn’t trash the environment.

We’re not talking about the famous $325,000 hamburger patty made from beef cells immersed in a growth medium that was triumphantly cooked on TV six years ago.

We’re talking about a proper steak with muscle and fat cells and the right shape, taste and texture — but not one produced by the familiar process that uses huge amounts of fertile land, releases large amounts of greenhouse gases and involves slaughtering live animals. That is Yaakov Nahmias’s goal, and he’s pretty close now.

Future Meat Technologies produces its “cell-based meat” in bioreactors, growing it on lattices that give it shape and texture, but we’re not talking about giant vats in a lab. He plans to give small units to existing farmers, who might still be rearing some beef cattle too for the luxury end of the market.

“With these two plays — a more efficient bioreactor and a distributed manufacturing model — we can essentially drop the cost down to about $5 a kilogram,” said Nahmias. Meat giant Tyson Foods recently put $2.2 million of seed money into his company, and a dozen other start-ups are chasing the same goal: Memphis Meat, JUST, Finless Foods, Meatable — a total of 30 labs around the world.

Coming up behind cell-based meat there’s the even newer concept of “Solar Foods”: a Finnish company called just that is using electricity from solar panels to electrolyze water and produce hydrogen. The hydrogen is fed to bacteria, and the product is an edible food that is half carbohydrates, half fats and protein.

It is just as good as soya as an animal food, and it uses no land at all. No greenhouse gas emissions either, and the first factory producing it opens in two years’ time. Technology alone can’t save us, but it can certainly shift the odds in our favor.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist.