Cellular Agriculture, the future of food?
Only 71% of the total land surface on the Earth is habitable, of that, half is used for agriculture. 77% of that land is used to raise livestock. Oddly enough, of our protein supply, meat and dairy only accounts for 33%. And yet, global meat demand has only been going up. According to the Food and Agriculture organization of the United Nations by 2050, the world will consume over 557 million tonnes of meat. The implications of this are huge.
Consequences of Mass Meat Consumption
By 2050 there will be 10 billion people on Earth. Meat production fundamentally is not sustainable at the level it is at. If demand keeps going up, this will destroy the Earth. There is simply not enough space to support our cravings for meat. Not only that, it has been proven that livestock account for producing more greenhouse gases than cars do yearly. Furthermore, livestock are being fed millions of antibiotics, and unfortunately the bacteria which these antibiotics are currently killing are slowly mutating, and not so far down the road, and they could render modern antibiotics obsolete. Studies show that livestock production is also inefficient, land animals take in more calories than they produce when slaughtered. But the underlying problem is that people still need food, and at this point in time it’s unlikely for the general public to go vegetarian. The world will still consume meat, but we need a way to produce it that doesn’t destroy the Earth and its climate. Luckily, scientists have found some possible solutions.
Thanks to the scientists working relentlessly around the world we have a solution to this conundrum. First, plant-based meat. This is pretty self- explanatory, currently most plant-based meats are made of a mixture of soy, wheat, and peas. While the actual meat is quite cheap to produce since most of the ingredients are ironically used as livestock feed, the catch is that companies spend tens of millions of dollars trying to make their plant-based meat taste exactly like the real thing. If there was a consensus among the public to switch to plant-based meat, the meat would become cheaper, and more companies would start to produce them. Now the other solution is cellular agriculture. Which is, in essence, the process of growing meat directly from cells.
Cellular agriculture and how it works
Cellular agriculture can produce more than just meat, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll be going over clean meat production. Clean meat production begins with obtaining cell lines from the desired animal species. To generate a cell line, you must isolate a group of cells which are stable and immortalized. Basically, the cell line has to behave in a consistent way, and it must have the capability to divide endlessly. Just like regular cells, cells that are being grown require nutrients. Cell culture media is a solution that provides salts, and the building blocks of most cellular structures, proteins and fats. They also contain certain molecules which are called growth factors, they help signal cells to differentiate into their desired forms like muscle cells, blood cells, etc. After the cells have proliferated, they are placed onto tiny scaffolds on which they differentiate and mature. These scaffolds act like a support structure, and they help the meat have the same look and texture as the real thing. They must allow a formation of a network of vessels so nutrients can pass through the cells. Scaffolds must be made out of an edible material which is also abundant and easy to find. Currently, there are multiple ways to make scaffolds, companies have used 3D printing to fine tune the scaffolds. After the cells mature, you have successfully produced clean meat through cellular agriculture. The whole process can take less than 6 days to complete. Now you’re probably thinking, if it’s this easy why hasn’t the meat industry been transformed? Currently it’s due to the fact that cell culture media is far too expensive to be used commercially. We need to find ways to bring down the cost of the media, so large scale production is a viable option for large food companies.But not too far in the future, cellular agriculture might just redefine how and what we eat.