The Implications of Conventional Farming and Cellular Agriculture.
By 2050, the global demand for meat is expected to increase from 60 billion animals to 100 billion animals. To satisfy this rapid increase, some have proposed the implementation of cellular agriculture on the basis that it is more sustainable than our traditional farming practises. While this is true on several counts, both methodologies will impact the environment, our health, animal welfare, the economy and our lifestyles. Understanding the implications of both are necessary in making the informed decisions required to pioneer an effective future.
What is Cellular Agriculture?
Cellular agriculture is the process of growing animal products (meat, eggs, milk, leather…) outside the animal.
Doing this requires three main steps:
- Getting the cells from the animal.
- Combining them with culture medium (the fluid that nourishes the cell with growth factors including sugars, fats, proteins and vitamins).
- Placing the mixture in a bioreactor (a machine that provides the cells with the necessary environmental triggers such as temperature and exercise).
Cellular agricultre is much more resource efficient than conventional farming.
To put it into perspective, “in order to produce one 8-ounce (0.23kg) steak, not only is 1.6 kg of feed required, the production process requires enough energy to fully charge one laptop sixty times as well as 3,515 liters of water. In addition, 4.54 kg of carbon dioxide is released into the air as various greenhouse gases, which is the equivalent of the emission of 2 liters of gasoline.”
Cellular agriculture, on the other hand is able to produce the same product using 98% less land and less than 10% of the water, rely on half the energy and emit 90% less greenhouse gasses.
Why is this?
In traditional agriculture, the inputs are dedicated to raising the whole animal —including the parts which are not of interest— and power a life’s worth of essential processes.
On the other hand, cellular agriculture only requires resources to nurture the part of interest.
Cellular agriculture can produce healthier animal products in a safer way than conventional farming.
With cellular agriculture we can exert a high level of control over each stage of the growth process. This control allows us to modify the final product to exhibit almost any characteristics. As such, animal products could be designed to optimize their overall level of nutrition.
Since cultured animal products are grown in monitored conditions, they are not subject to the external contamination conventional products are exposed to (unsanitary living conditions, disease, handling…). However, there may be a greater chance of internal contamination if the culture medium the products are nurtured in is defective.
Traditionally, livestock raised in close proximity are routinely given antibiotics to prevent the fast spread of bacteria. Cultured animal products’ independence from antibiotics dissuades the development of antibiotic resistant pathogens, and prevents human consumers from ingesting trace quantities of these undesirable chemicals.
Cellular Agriculture decreases the level of mistreatment animals frequently experience in conventional farming.
The cells needed to grow cultured tissue can be taken from the animal through a biopsy under local anesthesia, and would therefore a limited burden to the animal. Additionally, if one of these cell lines is sustained through proliferation, one animal could be the source of the indefinite amount of meat required to feed the world.
The culture media currently used to produce animal tissue is called Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS), and is derived from the blood of cow fetuses. While there are alternatives to this serum, they are less effective in stimulating cell growth. However, with more research into this field of technology, an equally effective, animal-free culture media may be developed.
Currently, cellular agriculture is much more expensive than conventional farming. However, with the development of this technology, the cost is expected to decrease.
Using cellular agriculture, it costs about $50,000 to produce one pound of meat — something which would only cost a few dollars to produce conventionally.
Why? Mainly because the current culture medium of choice — FBS — costs over $1,000 per litre.
Cellular agriculture deepens our reliance on technology and could force countries at a technological disadvantage to suffer significant permanent job loss.
Currently, the livestock industry is the backbone of several national economies and source of many people’s livelihoods. Transitioning to cellular agriculture would result in the loss of several jobs. In the case of some, only temporarily as this field will create new opportunities. However, it will most likely not rely as much on human assistance, and developing countries at disadvantages may suffer significant permanent job loss.
What’s more, the way we produce our food has always held an influential role in our cultures and lifestyles. This shift on a large scale will be no different — ultimately, it will bring humanity closer to a completely urban lifestyle and deepen our reliance on technology. While some perceive this to be progressive, others will see it to be unfortunate and limiting.
In conclusion, cellular agriculture is an emerging technology which poses both benefits and consequences in the way we produce our food. More development of the field is required to make it feasible to implement on a practical scale, specifically in regards to finding a cheaper, animal free culture medium and making it appealing to consumers.
Some of the establishments working on furthering the technology are New Harvest, The Good Food Institute, The Modern Agriculture Foundation and The Cellular Agriculture Society by way of connecting experts, informing the public and funding research. Similarly, some of the companies working on commercializing cultured products for consumers are Memphis Meats, Just, Finless Foods, Perfect Day, Clara Foods, and several others.