How lab-grown burgers could feed the world

Tyler Curtis

Tyler Curtis, from Hall Cross Academy, Doncaster is the winner of the Bank of England/Financial Times schools blogging competition. In his winning post, he looks at how artificial meat could reshape the economy and our environment…

Food, glorious food! But how glorious is it, especially meat, when its production is reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? Traditionally, a significant portion of the world’s workforce has been employed in agriculture throughout history, forcing us to allocate massive amounts of scarce resources to the sector. Today, nearly 27 per cent of people work in agriculture worldwide, according to the World Bank (the figure is just 1 per cent in the UK). However, the industry is on the verge of a new revolution.

On August 5, 2013, the first lab-grown burger was eaten at a conference in London. Scientists at Maastricht University had taken cells from a living cow and nurtured them in vitro to grow a hamburger that food experts called “close to meat”, suggesting that it was of comparable quality to products of animal husbandry. Yet it was not a viable substitute for traditional burgers, costing around £215,000.

But soon in vitro burgers could be produced for as little as £8 apiece. This prompted the chief executive of so-called “clean meat” manufacturer Mosa Meat to state that the product could be on some menus by late 2018. If this trend continues, conventional farmers will struggle to compete on price before long. Lab grown meat would also ease the strain on the allocation of resources, because it consumes up to 45 per cent less energy, requires 99 per cent less land and between 82 and 96 per cent less water, according to a study by Oxford university. It also leads to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of up to 96 per cent.

In 2017, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that 815 million people were chronically undernourished in the world, despite ample food production. Almost all of them were in developing economies.

This raises the question of whether this new innovation will help to feed the starving, or whether technology will fail to filter down to those who need it most. There are two key barriers. First the forefront of research into in vitro meat is taking place in developed economies, which will create a time lag between its implementation in parts of the world. Second, the skillset required for clean meat is vastly different from traditional agriculture, which could lead to resistance from lobby groups and unions and could put off potential investors. A counter-argument is that, if the manufacturing process improves, modernised economies would be able to make enough lab-grown meat to exceed local demand, leading to potential exports. Lower prices for meat of all types could help feed a larger population worldwide.

For Britain, the economic and environmental implications of lab-grown meat could be twofold. First it could eliminate some the country’s food imports, which totalled £42.5bn in 2016; second the land freed up from raising food animals could be used for industry or crop farming, or trees could be planted to further reduce the country’s carbon footprint.

The technology still has a very long way to go before it can become a household staple, and even further before it can begin to replace the traditional methods of animal husbandry. However, in the very long term, the Frankenstein burger could become the economy’s prime cut.

Tyler Curtis is a student a student at Hall Cross Academy.