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Appetite for lab grown meat in spotlight at event

Alice Ritchie, MSc in Global Food Security and Nutrition student, considers the viewpoints raised in a Green Alliance panel discussion on lab-grown meat.

Late last year, lab-grown meat was finally cleared for approval for consumers in Singapore – a world first – reigniting conversations around how lab-grown meat could start to take over the market for real meat, potentially displacing animal agriculture entirely.

Animal agriculture is under increasing scrutiny as one of the causes of many of the world’s environmental and social problems – declining biodiversity, climate change, water availability and the spread of infectious disease. But global consumption of meat and dairy is continuing to rise and is showing few signs of slowing down. Lab-grown meat offers a potential solution to this problem. The meat is produced through techniques such as precision fermentation or cell cultures, creating a product that looks just like what you and I think of as meat but without the need for animal agriculture.

Alice Ritchie ​
​ Alice Ritchie

In December 2020, Green Alliance, a UK environmental organisation, convened a webinar aiming to consider what a future of lab-grown meat could look like.

The panellists included Dr Alexandra Sexton, research fellow at the University of Sheffield, and James Arbib, cofounder of RethinkX. As the Climate Change Lead for the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) and a student in the Global Food Security MSc programme, I was asked to join the panel, representing the perspective of farmers and land managers across England and Wales. The discussion was chaired by Anna Turns, an environmental journalist.

Dr Sexton kicked off, talking through the big concerns that consumers have around new food technologies like lab-grown meat, notably food safety, the need for full transparency from the sector on things such as allergens, contamination and food fraud and the potential issues around corporate concentration, if these new technologies are dominated by large, multinational food companies.

James then talked through the possibilities posed by a growing market for lab-grown meat as costs come down and lab-grown meat becomes a cheaper, healthier and potentially even tastier option. James argued that this could completely displace animal agriculture, with a RethinkX report in 2019 arguing that as costs come down for lab grown meat, numbers of livestock will dramatically drop, reducing by 50 per cent by 2030 in the US. With more meat produced with fewer animals, land would be freed up for other land use options, such as forestry, rewilding or conservation. James argued that meat from real animals would become a small, niche market.

I countered with the important role livestock production plays in the UK, particularly in supporting some of our most valued landscapes and helping promote biodiversity and carbon storage.

Globally, animal agriculture has a long way to go to become more sustainable, but the UK is on a different trajectory, already shifting towards more sustainable production, including regenerative agriculture, agro-ecology and nature-based solutions.

This will continue to be incentivised through the ‘public money for public goods’ policies contained in the new Agriculture Act. I argued that we are in the midst of a climate crisis and a nature crisis, and don’t have time for purported silver bullets to become mainstream and available. We must start making change now, and that begins with our existing farm systems.

Despite the differing views across the panel, all agreed that it’s clear the status quo for food production globally is unsustainable, and options such as lab-grown meat could be a part of a suite of low carbon options for food.

Unfortunately, the hour-long conversation didn’t give us a chance to delve further into some of the potential discussion topics around global food security, food poverty, nutrition and the potential impacts on smallholder farmers in areas outside the UK – things that would have been really interesting to explore in the context of the Global Food Security MSc programme.

It was such an interesting and exciting conversation to be a part of. It seems clear that animal agriculture is on the cusp of a transformation towards higher environmental standards and better animal welfare, but it’s crucially important that farmers and land managers are supported throughout this transition. Lab-grown meat poses huge potential, but isn’t without its detractors – it seems likely it could become part of a wide range of low-carbon food options in the near future.

 

You can watch the full webinar recording on You Tube here:

Video: What will lab grown meat and dairy mean for food, farming and the environment?
You Tube: What will lab grown meat and dairy mean for food, farming and the environment?