Conventional animal farming does not work. Last year, in the U.S alone, 10 billion animals were slaughtered. The National Resources Defense Council (an environmental law firm) estimates that Americans waste nearly 22 per cent of all meat, which means that over 2 billion animals were killed for no reason last year, while living in horrific conditions.
Livestock also represents a massive source of pollution. Alongside their waste products, which spread disease and pollute waterways, the methane emitted by farm animals amounts to almost 30 per cent of total methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. Add that to the loss of forests caused by the need for agricultural land and the billions of litres of water needed to sustain the animals, and it all amounts to a very unsustainable means to produce food.
Winston Churchill once said, “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” There is a very real chance that his statement could become a reality. The solution lies in a technology known as in vitro meat. Individual cell lines have been grown for research for decades, and in vitro meat extends this technology to another application, the growth of the desired parts of meat without all the waste.
In the future, this technology could be used to grow a hamburger out of beef muscle cells without needing to grow and kill the whole cow. The muscle cells would be grown in a nutrient broth, which means unhealthy foods could be tailored to be healthy. In this way, a burger could help prevent heart disease rather than cause it.
For now, the potential to grow enough meat to feed all of humanity is a distant dream, but recent research has shown the capability to achieve it is there. A lab in the Netherlands grew a small test tube burger, while PETA is offering a $1 million prize to the first lab that grows in vitro meat on a commercial scale.
While such a shift in the way we produce food will not be palatable to some, the benefits are significant. Saving tens of billions of animals from slaughter, drastically decreasing farming related deforestation and pollution, increased health for billions, and, eventually, a lower cost means of accessing waste-free food are some of the things in vitro meat can accomplish. While progress in this field of research has been slow and has a long way to go to achieve all of these goals, it is worth pursuit, if only to give people a chance to have a taste of the future of farming.