So what can be done?
Given the impact on the environment and the sheer number of resources it takes to create cow-loads of food, there’s only one option. If we want to eat for the planet, carnivores have to come too. And that means the answer has to be clean meat.
Last week, that future flickered fully into view, with Singaporean authorities approving the world’s first clean meat product for sale.
For years, clean meat has seemed like a far-off dream, as plant-based meat like the Impossible Burger took the limelight.
But now real meat made (almost) without killing is here. The lab-grown chicken nuggets produced by US company Eat Just come from chicken cells taken in a biopsy and grown in a bioreactor with the aid of plant-based nutrients. They look and taste like chicken, because they are chicken. Just produced without a chicken brain or nervous system or the need for pain. (The one remaining issue for vegetarians is the need to use low levels of foetal bovine serum as a growth accelerant, with much research focusing on this.)
What does this mean? It means in the near future, killing animals to produce muscle meat to cook is going to feel downright antiquated. Why go to all the expense of breeding, rearing and fattening animals for their meat if you can grow meat in bioreactors?
When you kill a cow, its body yields around 40 per cent of its live weight as saleable meat. When you grow a slab of muscle in a bioreactor, you have minimal waste. By bypassing slaughter, you avoid the risk of the animal’s bowel contents accidentally contaminating the meat. You avoid antibiotics and hormones many livestock are pumped full of to accelerate their conversion into meat. In short, you have far greater control and monitoring over the way we produce our main source of protein.
People will switch not because of ethics or squeamishness. They’ll switch because it’s meat, done cheaper and safer.
That will mean huge changes for the world’s meat industries – and for the landscape. As the human population has grown, so too our appetite for meat. Our repurposing of forests or grasslands for ever-growing pastures to feed the animals on which we rely is one of the largest changes we have caused to natural systems in our industrious efforts to feed ourselves. Humans and the tens of billions of livestock animals on which we rely account for 96 per cent of all mammals left on earth.
So – let’s not rely on wishful thinking and the belief that we will all switch to plant diets. We won’t. Instead, let us put effort and resources into making clean meat a reality.
Now, most clean meats still cost more than their traditional equivalents, and require higher energy inputs. That doesn’t mean it wont work. Demand will drive costs down and improve output, just as we have seen in renewables. The wind turbines of 2020 produce around 10 times as much energy compared to those built in 2000.
Once clean meat costs less than traditional meat, people will test it out. We’ll be curious about how it was grown. It may even attract an initial ick factor. But in time, growing meat in industrial food facilities will become the norm.
Traditional meat will still exist in the future. But so, too will petrol cars will. It will be a minority pursuit. Carnivore purists will still hold tight to their traditional meat, even when it costs more than the alternative.
Everyone else will go to the supermarket, head to the meat aisle and buy slabs of clean meat that look – and taste – exactly the way meat should. Because it is meat.
Doug Hendrie is a Melbourne writer.