Does the world have an appetite for lab-grown meat?

'Clean meat', or meat grown from cells without the use of animals, is rapidly becoming a commercial reality

In 1931, Winston Churchill published an essay, Fifty Years Hence, in which he made predictions about what the world might look like by the 1980s. Among the more stunning: that humans would figure out how to permanently divorce meat production from animal husbandry.

"We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing," the British parliamentarian prophesied, "by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium."

Because doing so would free up land that had been used for growing crops to feed farm animals, he concluded, "parks and gardens will cover our pastures and ploughed fields."

Churchill was a few decades off, but we now have the capacity to do exactly as he foresaw: To grow real meat outside of animals' bodies.

In recent years, so-called "clean meat" - a term first popularised by the non-profit Good Food Institute - has moved out of the realm of science fiction and become scientific fact.

The first "clean burger" debuted in 2013, thanks in part to research and development funding from Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Since 2014, I've had the good fortune to eat clean beef, duck, fish, chorizo, liver and yogurt, all grown without animals.

To be clear, the clean meat that Churchill envisioned isn't simply an alternative to meat. It is actual animal muscle tissue, produced without the living, conscious animal.

Rather than raising chickens or pigs to slaughter and sell as cuts of meat, clean meat producers take microscopic animal cells, put them in a cultivator so that they behave as they do in the body and feed them so they that grow into muscle tissue just like the meat we eat today.

Why would we want to start producing real meat without animals?

Because raising farm animals takes vast resources.


To put the problem in perspective, imagine walking through the poultry aisle of your local supermarket.For each whole chicken you see, envision more than one thousand single-gallon jugs of water sitting next to it. Then imagine twisting the cap off each jug and pouring them all out.

That is about how much water it takes to bring a single chicken from shell to shelf.

In other words, you can save more water by skipping one chicken dinner than by skipping six months of showers.

Growing only the meat we want won't require all the resources needed to produce entire animals.

A 2011 study by Oxford University researcher Hanna Tuomisto estimated that clean beef production could require 99 per cent less land and 96 per cent less water while producing 96 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional beef production.

Such early studies are admittedly imprecise, since the technologies that will make clean meat commercially viable are still under development. But most analysts believe that even large-scale production of lab-cultured meat is likely to be far more resource-efficient than traditional livestock production.

Churchill's vision of widely available synthetic meat isn't yet a reality, but it is likely a matter of years now, not decades.

Those who worry that Churchill's vision of meat without animals is "unnatural" should recall just how unsustainable, inhumane and unnatural contemporary meat production has become.

Clean meat enthusiasts seek to displace the farm animals providing the vast majority of the meat we eat today: animals that languish in their own faeces, never set foot outdoors and are forced to consume large quantities of antibiotics and other drugs.

If we pause to contemplate this harsh reality, the promise of clean meat seems obvious. - REUTERS

The writer is the author of Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner And The World.