It’s something that’s been on my mind the last couple of weeks, for a few reasons. At MIT Tech Review’s recent ClimateTech event, my colleague James Temple interviewed Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods. The company makes plant-based meat alternatives that are designed to closely resemble the real thing—most famously its “bleeding” burger. When asked what he thought about “cell-based” meat, Brown responded: “I certainly don’t see them as a competitor.”
I’ve also been reading a series of papers published in the scientific journal Nature Food a couple of weeks ago, which explored the arguments for and against cultured meat, as it’s known, in more detail.
The other reason I’ve been thinking about meat alternatives is that the winter holidays are approaching, and as someone who doesn’t eat meat, it’s my job to come up with an alternative that everyone, including my fussy kids and meat-loving dad, will enjoy. Talk about impossible foods.
But back to cultured meat. There are lots of reasons why, on paper, meat grown in bioreactors is a brilliant idea. For a start, we’d be able to cut down on intensive animal farming, which can be brutal and inhumane. Rearing animals in cramped conditions can create the perfect conditions for diseases to spread, and even pass to humans.
And the use of antibiotics to avoid such disease outbreaks is also incredibly problematic. It is estimated that around 70% of the antibiotics we use to treat infections in people are also used in farm animals. And any microorganisms that become resistant to antibiotics as a result of this use can end up in crops, soil, rivers, and people, potentially causing untreatable and possibly fatal diseases. At least 1.2 million people died from antibiotic-resistant infections in 2019, for example.
The process of producing meat is also terrible for the environment. Animal agriculture is responsible for a significant chunk of our greenhouse-gas emissions. We use more than a third of our planet’s habitable land to farm animals—land that may have been carbon-consuming forest or woodland. The destruction of forests for agriculture can leave many species, lots of them endangered, without a home. This can decimate biodiversity.