Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and the author of Animal Liberation Now.
One day, we may look back on 2023 as the year when it became apparent that the gigantic industry of raising animals for food was heading the same way as the industry that, for most of the 20th century, dominated how we record and store images. Is this year the equivalent (for animal production) of 1989, when the first digital camera aimed at the general public was launched?
There are signs that it might be, starting with the Israeli Ministry of Health’s approval, in April, of a dairy product that does not come from cows or other lactating animals. Remilk, the manufacturer, is a company on an ambitious mission: “Creating dairy that is a far superior version of itself.”
Forty years ago, biotech company Genentech used then-novel recombinant DNA techniques to create genetically modified bacteria that would produce human insulin for diabetics that was better, and less expensive, than insulin obtained from the pancreases of pigs. In a similar manner, Remilk copies DNA from cows into yeasts so that they create a product that is, Remilk says, identical to cow’s milk, minus the lactose, cholesterol, antibiotics, and growth hormones. Remilk claims that its products are identical in taste, texture, and cost to traditional dairy, while using only 1 per cent of the land and 5 per cent of the water and emitting just 4 per cent of the pollutants. (Cows are major emitters of methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas.) If that is not enough reason to try the product, consider that it also eliminates the standard practice of impregnating cows every year, and taking their calves away soon after birth, so that the milk is available for humans.
Another momentous development came in June, when the United States Department of Agriculture approved two separate applications from companies selling chicken grown from cells. Again, no living organism is involved, and the original sample can be taken without adding even one more death to the more than 70 billion chickens killed each year for their meat.
The U.S. was not the first to approve cellular meat, also known as cultured or cultivated meat. Cultured chicken has been on sale in Singapore since 2020, but so far it has been unable to compete on price with chicken produced by the conventional method of crowding tens of thousands of birds into a shed, raising them for six-to-seven weeks, and then slaughtering them. But with the much larger U.S. market now beckoning, the hope is that economies of scale will drive down the price and drive up production.
Research and development in cultured meat is now a global phenomenon. The Dutch company Mosa Meat was the pioneer, demonstrating a cultured hamburger in 2013, but predicting that it would take a decade to bring to market. That prediction looks accurate, with Mosa opening an expanded production facility in May and expecting to begin sales as it gains approval.
In May, the China Meat Food Comprehensive Research Center demonstrated its interest in cellular meat at a major forum for technological innovation in Beijing. The Beijing Daily reported that the centre’s technology grows animal muscle cells in vitro and uses 3-D printing to form them into steaks or chicken breast, with a nutritional content identical to that of meat from animals.
If even part of this R&D achieves its aims, the consequences will be far more significant than the displacement of the film industry. After all, raising animals takes up most of the world’s agricultural land, and it is also a major contributor to climate change. If the dramatic changes heralded by recent developments occur, most of the Earth’s land surface will benefit.
Given that meat consumption continues to rise as countries become more affluent, a more efficient form of producing meat is desperately needed. Vaclav Smil, a world authority on food, energy, and the environment, has listed five categories of “undeniable burdens” implied by our reliance on growing crops to feed animals. They include monocultures for growing feed, with increased soil erosion; inefficient conversion of plants to animal products, especially in cattle; generation of huge volumes of animal waste that preclude adequate recycling to crops; greenhouse gas emissions from feed crops and animal metabolism; and animal-welfare concerns.
Of course, if everyone just switched to a plant-based diet, we could eliminate all these burdens, and as a recently released report shows, reduce the risk of new pandemics. Despite the encouraging rise in plant-based eating, however, a complete switchover doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon. It will be easier to persuade people to avoid meat from animals if they can still eat food that tastes like the products they know, but does not require raising, feeding, and killing a live animal. And that nourishes the hope that we will soon see the end of a cruel, inefficient, destructive, and dangerous industry.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023. www.project-syndicate.org