What should the role of lab grown meat be in our future food system?
This post is by Jim Elliott, senior policy adviser and Tom Booker, policy assistant at Green Alliance
Lab grown meat and dairy, produced from a group of starter cells or from genetically modified microorganisms, rather than animals, is fast becoming a reality. Recent news revealed that a US company had won approval from Singapore’s food regulator to sell lab grown meat in the country. Meanwhile, a test restaurant has been set up in Israel, though it is waiting on the state regulator for approval to sell its lab grown chicken to the public. Media coverage has tended to focus on consumers, addressing questions like what lab grown meat tastes and feels like, whether people will want to eat it, or be able to afford it. But there are also big questions about what these technologies will mean for the food system, for farmers and for our environment. To find out more about this, we surveyed people working in NGOs, research organisations and farming groups to gauge their perceptions, and what opportunities and risks lab grown meat poses.
Do the opportunities outweigh the threats?
For the proponents of lab grown meat and dairy, the big opportunities are in animal welfare and addressing the nature and climate emergency. We currently use half of all habitable land in the world for agriculture, over three quarters of that is used for grazing or livestock feed. Despite this, animal products only provide 18 per cent of global calories and 37 per cent of global protein.
Amongst our respondents there was a consensus that the opportunities for creating a more environmentally friendly food system outweigh the threats. A shift from livestock production to lab grown meat and dairy would free up land for nature restoration and climate mitigation. However, concern was also expressed about the energy use involved in growing meat in a lab at a large scale.
The newness of this technology means there is a lot of uncertainty around it. We asked respondents what their level of support for it would be if outcomes could be guaranteed, for example, if there were demonstrable environmental benefits. They said they would support it more if positive outcomes were guaranteed, and less if negative outcomes were guaranteed.
Experts and consumers think differently
Overall, support for using precision fermentation and cell cultures to produce protein for human consumption was relatively high. Four in five saw lab grown meat as having at least some role in a sustainable diet of the future, though the most common response was that it would only be ‘a little’. However, there was a divergence between different groups. Those involved in farming related organisations were generally strongly opposed, while researchers and scientists at universities and think tanks were strongly in favour. Those from NGOs were generally in favour, but there was a much greater diversity of viewpoints than in the other two groups.
The majority view amongst those we surveyed: that these technologies do have a role to play, doesn’t reflect public perception though, as a majority of consumers currently find it unappealing. A wider public conversation is needed to clarify what these new technologies are, how they work and what role they could play in our food system.
Challenges for food and farming
Despite their optimism, our respondents identified a number of important threats and challenges. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest threat they mentioned was to livestock farmers’ businesses and livelihoods. While some noted that farmers could corner a new market in ‘luxury’ meat production, most thought lab grown meat would be likely to displace livestock producers, if it ended up tasting as good and was cheaper. There was little optimism that this threat could be overcome and protect farming livelihoods.
Furthermore, although animal agriculture, in general, is known to contribute significantly to UK carbon emissions and other environmental degradation such as air and water pollution, certain types of extensive livestock farming are environmentally beneficial, for example contributing to higher levels of biodiversity and soil fertility. Livestock farming also, of course, has cultural value and contributes to iconic British landscapes.
If lab grown meat takes off, either through market forces or food policy, the government and farming bodies will need to make sure that economic and environmental consequences are considered. It may be that there should be greater rewards for managing land for nature and climate, compensating for lower livestock numbers, and the development of a stronger market for quality, sustainably farmed meat.
Respondents also expressed concern that lab grown meat could see power and money further concentrated in the hands of a small number of global food companies, which could reduce transparency about where food comes from, and take revenue away from local economies. These problems could be mitigated by appropriate state regulation. There is also concern about consumers further losing touch with the origins of their food. Again, it is possible to see how these technologies could be used at small scale in a decentralised way, perhaps with local lab grown specialities emerging, but this situation is unlikely to emerge without government intervention.
The case for precaution and pre-emptive policy making
Applying the precautionary principle should not stop innovation, but it enables us to prepare for and address risks, ranging from viral and bacterial concerns in lab cultures, to excessive energy use and increasing corporate concentration. Acting ahead and creating policy now in response to these emerging technologies will help to balance the risks and benefits. These decisions should be informed by a public conversation about what we want our food system to look like in the future. Hopefully, the National Food Strategy, due soon, will be the start, rather than the end, of this conversation.
Join our event at 4pm on Thursday 10 December to discuss what lab grown meat and dairy mean for food, farming and the environment.