Raising the stakes with lab-grown meat
Singapore recently became the first government to approve the use of lab-grown meat as an ingredient in food. Many have seen the move as a bellwether for the development of a global synthetic meat market -- an innovative sector which in the long term could significantly reduce our reliance on the slaughter of animals for food while significantly reducing carbon emissions.
While the concept of growing meat in a lab has been explored through works of science fiction for decades, Nasa led the way by starting real-world experiments in this area more than 20 years ago. Initially, the costs of producing synthetic meat were commercially prohibitive. Nevertheless, scientists have continued with their efforts to grow economically viable meat from animal stem cells. Under this process, after the original stem cells are harvested, the meat produced will not have harmed an animal.
Last year, scientists at Nanjing Agricultural University made news by growing 5 grammes of meat from pig stem cells in 20 days. Earlier this year, Chinese technologists called for the establishment of a clear framework for developing the sector so that China could lead the way in sustainable eating.
Minimising animal suffering is an important and worthy aim. However, the development of lab-grown meat can also play a significant role in reducing carbon emissions. If people shift toward more of a plant-based, or lab-grown meat-based diet, this would not only reduce the resources used to produce meat, but increase the biomass of plants that can convert carbon dioxide into oxygen.
The synthetic meat company Future Meat Technologies has said its products would use 99% less land, 96% less fresh water and produce one-fifth of the greenhouse gas emissions of traditionally produced meat.
Whether or not it would be possible to achieve such a dramatic change in the meat industry's environmental footprint if the world switched from pastural agricultural to lab-grown food, it seems clear that doing so would yield a positive outcome for our ecosystems and animal welfare.
Data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shows that global livestock produces 7.1 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, or 14.5% of all CO2 emissions related to human activity. It takes 300 kilogrammes of CO2 to produce one kilogramme of beef protein, the most resource-intensive meat, according to the FAO. By contrast, the production of one kilogramme of cultured meat caused 1.9 to 2.2kg in CO2-equivalent emissions, 78% to 96% less than for conventional meat production, according to a European study.
So far Singapore has approved the use of "cultured chicken" produced by Eat Just, a San Francisco-based food tech company, in chicken nuggets. While it may take some time for a critical mass of meat eaters to find the idea of eating animal products that were grown in a petri dish palatable, we should see the Lion City's approval as an important step in the right direction toward a greener and more human future.
Suwatchai Songwanich is an executive vice-president with Bangkok Bank. For more columns in this series please visit www.bangkokbank.com