Yesterday, a friend sent me a Guardian article that announced the regulatory authority approval in Singapore of lab-grown meat. It’s news that has been met with cautious optimism.
Unlike livestock, lab-grown meat doesn’t need to be injected with antibiotics, which—quite apart from being healthier for meat-eaters—would also help protect even non-meat-eaters against what the World Health Organisation calls ‘one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today’: antibiotic resistance.
If lab-grown meat replaces animal-grown meat consumption, then it could also reduce the amount of land used to raise livestock and thus remove one of the biggest drivers for land use change, a major contributor to the current climate and biodiversity crises.
Reading this news article more closely, it becomes clear that it is still a story of ‘ifs’ and ‘coulds’:
The small scale of current cultured meat production requires a relatively high use of energy and therefore carbon emissions. But once scaled up its manufacturers say it will produce much lower emissions and use far less water and land than conventional meat.
My question is: how far would lab-grown meat have to come before it could challenge a plant-based diet for lowest environmental impact?
Even if it does, it’s far from a given that lab-grown meat actually would replace animal-grown meat. What if the only market for lab-grown meat turns out to be people currently eating a plant-based diet for ethical reasons and animal-grown meat continues to rise unabated?
Surprisingly, a 2019 study that examined dietary data from 137 countries around the world found that the level of meat production has a bigger influence on what we eat than our appetites: the more meat that is grown, the more we eat. So what if lab-grown meat makes us more dependent on animal meat rather than less?
The study also found that the two biggest drivers of rising global meat consumption are income and rate of urbanisation. Given that the rate of urbanisation is highest in countries like Uganda, Burundi, Liberia, Laos and Afghanistan, what reason is there to think that these people would have access to expensive lab-meat factories?
The word ‘news’ comes from the Latin ‘novus’, which means ‘unusual’. News stories, like this Guardian article, are stories that are unusual. Most of the time, that means there is a more mundane, less ‘newsworthy’ story. In this case: a surer way of reducing landscape use change and our vulnerability to antibiotic resistance is to lose our taste for flesh, however it’s grown.