With the global population estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050 the ability to feed everyone is a growing concern. Scientists are warning of food shortages if we maintain our current diets leading many to advocate for more people to become vegetarians, as vegetables are much less resource intensive than a diet which includes animal proteins. But perhaps there is an alternative- laboratory or in-vitro meat.

What’s Changing?

Rising standards of living are increasing the demand for meat.   The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates the demand for meat will double over the next 40 years.  At present levels, 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to livestock, with much of this being methane gas considered far more damaging than carbon dioxide.  Estimates are as high as 70% of all arable land is used in some way to raise livestock- either for the animals themselves or to produce feed for livestock.   There is simply not enough land and resources, especially water, to support the consumption of meat doubling using current methods and technology.

One possible solution is to limit meat consumption, in recent research by the Stockholm International Water Institute concludes if everyone consumes just 5% of their daily calorie intake from animal protein there might be just enough water.  This is on average of a 25% reduction of calories from animal protein in a typical diet today.

Another alternative is meat created in a laboratory.  Synthetic meat involves taking a small amount of actual meat cells and using them to grow additional cells in a laboratory.  The real challenge is not in growing the cells but in getting the end product to resemble actual meat both in taste and texture.   Meat is not made of just one type of cell, it is made of several types, including muscle which gives it texture.

Scientists believe they are getting closer to creating an artificial meat product, it may not be a steak initially, hamburger or ground beef are more likely as they are easier to create.  The development of 3D printing technologies is aiding development efforts.  Much like a laser printer mixes the primary colours to create a multitude of colours; different cell types can be loaded and “printed” to create an end product more closely resembling the taste and texture of real meat.

How long before we see artificial beef available?  Some estimates are as short as 2-3 years.  Early commercial products may be a bit like Kobe beef is available today; expensive and not widely distributed.

Why is it important?

In-vitro meat may provide a solution to the current resource intensive farming methods and a way to significantly reduce the environmental footprint including land, water and greenhouse gas emissions.  It also addresses ethical concerns about the treatment of livestock.

Meat created in a laboratory may provide the opportunity to create “designer” meat products- those with less fat, more taste, greater protein or other desirable characteristics providing even greater variety and nutritional benefits than those currently available from meat.

The ability to access food and water are basic human needs.  As the population grows and diets change, our natural resources are increasingly limited.  The world faces challenges as to how to manage conflicting demands equitably and ethically.  Artificial food, including in-vitro meat, may provide solutions to growing concerns over food availability and food security.

By Elizabeth Rudd

About the author

Elizabeth has a strong background assisting clients to navigate the often conflicting signals in their external environments and find innovative opportunities . As a strategic foresight consultant at FutureNous she has assisted organisation to explore the future to find new products, alter their business model, find expansion opportunities and build their resilience. Her experience spans many industries including technology, mining, utilities, healthcare, non-profits, government, media and telecommunications, and many others. Elizabeth also works with Shaping Tomorrow writing Trend Alerts and more in-depth reports exploring the impact of long term (macro) trends.