The development of a sustainable food-production and -distribution system will be central to many of the world’s pressing challenges, including food poverty and hunger, climate change and pollution associated with agricultural practices. Even though substantial progress has been made in reducing the number of people dying from famine during the last century, in 2017, the UN officially declared that the spectre of famine had returned to Africa. The COVID-19 pandemic has further aggravated the situation as global supply chains became strained due to draconic lockdown measures and growing political tensions in certain countries. According to estimates from the IPCC’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land (2019), about 8.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from the agricultural sector, with a further 14.5% resulting from land use change, i.e., primarily deforestation. The two biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector are: (a) nitrous oxide emissions from agricultural soils; and (b) methane emissions from livestock and manures. In case you were wondering energy use accounts for less than 1.5% of total emissions of the agricultural sector.
Current practices in the livestock sector might also harbour a further health crisis. The World Resource institute estimates that it requires about nine kilojoules of animal feed to produce one kilojoule of poultry meat. The production of one kilojoule of protein from poultry, the most ‘climate-friendly’ type of animal agriculture, is responsible for 40 times as many GHG emissions as one kilojoule of protein from legumes. Moreover, approximately 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are currently used for the mass-production of animal products. This widespread (mis-)use significantly increases the risk of more strains of bacteria developing antibiotics resistance. The possible ensuing public health issues are frightening; it could deprive us of one of medicine’s most powerful tools, leading to huge social and economic costs. The costs of antibiotic resistant infections to the U.S. health care system alone sum up to tens of billions of US-dollars annually.
Could cultured meat be a potential solution to some of the aforementioned problems? Cultured meat is produced by in vitro cell cultures, using tissue engineering techniques similar to those used in regenerative medicine, rather than from slaughtered animals. Developments in this sector are still in their infancy, but progress has been rapid. This could cause an enormous disruption in the agricultural sector through a resource-efficient production of protein that could deliver many benefits including the eradication of famine. At least that is the general account provided by promoters of cultured meat. Currently many ambitious claims are being made around the potential benefits of the new technology, e.g. that cultured meat could significantly lower environmental impacts compared to conventional meat production, or that the use of cultured meat could help protect and restore biodiversity and halt the slaughtering of animals. It’s also been claimed that a large-scale adoption of cultured meat would not only significantly reduce the use of antibiotics in the meat production process, but that it could also significantly decrease the risk of the emergence and spread of animal-borne diseases like bird- and swine-flu. Further, the exposure to harmful substances such as pesticides and fungicides would be greatly reduced. But then again, what goes into the cultivated meat production process? What types of chemicals, and what’s the water and energy requirements to culture adequate amounts of cultured meat to cater for the growing demand for protein? Would it be ‘healthier’ than conventional meat, and, most importantly, would it be more sustainable?
For the time being, several of these points are largely speculative in nature and insufficient to draw any firm conclusions from; a systems approach could be the only way forward to determine the true benefits and to uncover potential hidden trade-offs that have to be taken into account by industry and policy makers alike.
Written by Dr. Norman Ebner, CRES strategic advisor