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.

5 comments

  • Thanks for this summary. I’d like to know more about the repsonses of the different groups.
    For me these are the crucial aspects:
    ‘… certain types of extensive livestock farming are environmentally beneficial, for example contributing to higher levels of biodiversity and soil fertility … 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. … There is also concern about consumers further losing touch with the origins of their food.’

    And what really gets me about this whole thing is that it is unnecessary. We do not need to eat meat, for energy or protein or anything else – though meat is useful as an easily absorbed source of iron and zinc.

    So I’d rather see more people eating more plant food and less animal food. And then we could eat small amounts of meat from real live animals, but local animals kept in extensive, environmentally friendly ways and treated humanely while they’re alive and when they’re killed. The crucial things are for people to have fewer children, eat mostly plants, and choose all our food very carefully, helped by good regulation and by good education for farmers and for all of us.

  • Useful start to the consideration of this technology. It does offer some strong promise, but plenty of points to thrash out. Here are some which occur to me

    Be more specific than “genetically modified” this has become a loaded phrase. We are not the slightest squeamish about using genomic techniques to produce vaccines which we inject directly into our body. Many argue that what matters is the product of the genomic techniques and its properties and the way it is used not the ‘breeding technique’ by which it cam about.

    Surely the concern about energy use per Kg of product applies to all modes of production. Do we have comparable energy use metrics for them all? Besides as all energy is decarbonised then this aspect gradually fades in importance per se.

    The livelihoods of livestock farmers cannot be justified if their outputs are unsustainable (which they are routinely accused of being, both environmentally (water, air and atmospheric pollution) and economically (highly dependent on subsidy). Many new technologies render some livelihoods redundant whilst opening other opportunities. We didn’t allow mechanisation of agriculture to be the greatest displacer of farm labour – not least because this pre- mechanisation farm labour was highly unproductive and consequently low earning.

    But there are arguments that livestock provide important other services than simply their products (meat and milk). Grazing livestock are critical elements in the open pastoral landscapes which give humans great benefits. These are the main non-coastal recreation zones for many societies – especially but not only in Europe. Livestock also provide manure for farming systems especially those who eschew the use of manufactured mineral fertilisers. However it has to be acknowledged that manure is a mightily leaky (into water, air and atmosphere) and generally imprecise way of adding nutrients to land. This is a vexed issue.

    There is nothing here about the relative price of cultured vs ‘proper’ meat, yet food prices are a major concern especially for the poorest in society.

    There is also no mention of nutritional quality of cultured meat both macro nutrients, micro nutrients, trace elements, nor the texture and eating quality – these are all important and can only be discovered as the product gets into wider consumption.

    We also need to know the origin of the base cell cultures, where are they from, how are they acquired, what the main nutrient source for the growing cultures will be, and what by products or waste products there are and how they are cycled or disposed.

    Plenty to discuss

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