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Oct 31, 2019

Designing Food for the Future

Global warming has accelerated sharply in the past five years. Mitigating the catastrophic effects of climate change will require path-breaking changes in every facet of our lives—particularly in the way we travel and the way we eat. Kabira Namit, a 2014 Sylff fellow at Princeton University, highlights a radical approach to revolutionize food production over the next few decades that he and other fellows discussed at the Sylff Leaders Workshop in April 2019. This post was written in collaboration with Salvia Zeeshan, a post-doctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University, with additional assistance from Prabhmeet Kaur.

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What’s Wrong with the Way We Eat?

To put it simply, we eat a lot of meat. Raising livestock produces a fifth of human-related greenhouse gas emissions. Also, livestock farming utilizes 70% of the earth’s arable land, 30% of the earth’s fresh water, and around 46% of all crop-production for feed.[1]

Beyond the pressures on our environment, there is also an ethical argument to be made toward changing our current behavior. We slaughter more than 50 billion chickens per year—animals with abilities that may be comparable to human toddlers. Also, nearly 1.5 billion pigs and 500 million sheep[2] find their way to the abattoir each year. The conditions in which we keep these animals before they are killed are best left unimagined.   

Also, meat consumption is linked to an array of health problems like the transfer of animal diseases, high cholesterol, and the increased risk of cancer.

Is Vegetarianism the Solution?

Ideally, yes. Turning to vegetarian diets would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce our expenditure on healthcare, and provide more food security to the world’s population. There is definite evidence to suggest that people are becoming more conscientious and reducing their meat consumption. For example, in the US, consumers identifying themselves as vegans rose from 1% to 6% between 2014 and 2017;[3] in the UK the number has grown fourfold from 150,000 to 600,000 between 2014 and 2018.[4]

However, this is not enough, as only 375 million out of the 7.7 billion individuals[5] on this planet follow vegetarian/vegan diets. Also, let’s be honest—given that humans have been eating meat since the dawn of our species, attempts to switch the entire human race to vegetarianism seem utopian. We get protein from meat consumption and tend to relish dishes like steaks, sashimi, and sushi. Eating meat on certain days is also considered a tradition and a symbol of prosperity.

Can We Continue Eating Meat while Combating Climate Change?

Lab-grown meat—cultured meat or clean meat, as it is also known—has been around for nearly a decade now and may be the solution to this intractable problem. Lab-grown meat is identical to conventional meat at the cellular level and is grown from animal muscle cells in a laboratory. The bioreactor that is used in producing this meat is similar to those used for the fermentation of yogurt or beer. No genetic modification is required for this process, and, since the process is sterile, there is no need for antibiotics.

©Just

It is also much better for the environment. Cultured meat requires 99% less land and 96% less water[6] than livestock. Removing the consumption of conventional meat and dairy products from one’s diet would reduce an individual’s carbon footprint of consumed food by up to 73%. Moreover, we could reduce global farmland use by 75%,[7] an area equivalent to the size of the US, China, Australia, and the European Union combined. Also, no animal needs to be slaughtered for your next steak!

With a soaring global population and a surge in demand for meat from people emerging from poverty, the burden on the earth’s limited ecological resources is only going to worsen. The meat industry estimates an expected increase of 73% in global demand for meat products by 2050.[8] Cultured meat may be just the pivotal revolution we need in food technology. It has enormous implications for meat eaters, the meat industry, and the environment.

So, What’s the Problem?

Currently, costs. Producing meat in a lab remains an expensive affair. The first lab-designed burger that Mark Post produced had a price tag of $330,000,[9] compared to the $2 that people tend to pay for burgers in the United States today. However, costs have been plummeting—Memphis Meats from San Francisco produced a lab-grown meatball for $18,000 in 2016. Just a year later, it produced a synthetic duck à l’orange and chicken nuggets at $6,000.[10]

Industry experts believe that upscaling and positive externalities will result in the same patty being produced for $10[11] in the future. However, research and development remain a costly affair. Also, weaving together muscle and fat tissue is a major hurdle obstructing the production of complex structured cuts, such as steaks, pork chops, and ribs.

Understandably, the industry is also wary of people’s attitudes and preferences. How many people will be open to consuming a lab-grown turkey next Thanksgiving? Or a cultured fish for Chinese New Year?

What Should We Do?

Invest in research! Cost-effective synthetic meat could prove to be a game-changer—not just for our fight against climate change and ethical food production but also in eliminating contamination due to bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella (as lab meat is cultivated under sterile conditions).[12] Composition of the meat can also be altered to make it healthier by replacing the harmful fats in it to healthier fats, such as omega 3. 

According to researchers at Oxford Martin School, we could save approximately 8 million human lives by 2050[13] if we decrease our reliance on traditional meat production. We could also diminish greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds, and save $1.5 trillion in healthcare costs and climate-related damage.

We need to urge our governments and policymakers to invest more in such vital research and help feed populations in the future in ethical, eco-friendly, and efficient ways.

[1] Ewing-Chow, D. (2019, June 20). “Is Cultured Meat the Answer to the World’s Meat Problem?” Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/daphneewingchow/2019/06/20/is-cultured-meat-the-answer-to-the-worlds-meat-problem/.

[2] Thornton, A. (2019, February 8). “This Is How Many Animals We Eat Each Year.” Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/02/chart-of-the-day-this-is-how-many-animals-we-eat-each-year/.

[3] Forgrieve, J. (2018, November 2). “The Growing Acceptance of Veganism.” Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/janetforgrieve/2018/11/02/picturing-a-kindler-gentler-world-vegan-month/#2a6387252f2b.

[4] Smithers, R. (2018, November 1). “Third of Britons Have Stopped or Reduced Eating Meat: Report.” Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/nov/01/third-of-britons-have-stopped-or-reduced-meat-eating-vegan-vegetarian-report.

[5] Figus, C., Cavaleri, A., & Mottadelli, R. (2014, October 27). “375 Million Vegetarians Worldwide. All the Reasons for a Green Lifestyle.” Retrieved from http://www.expo2015.org/magazine/en/lifestyle/375-million-vegetarians-worldwide.html.

[6] Ewing-Chow, D. (2019, June 20). “Is Cultured Meat the Answer to the World’s Meat Problem?” Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/daphneewingchow/2019/06/20/is-cultured-meat-the-answer-to-the-worlds-meat-problem/.

[7] Petter, O. (2018, August 29). “Going Vegan Is ‘Single Biggest Way’ to Reduce Our Impact on the Planet, Study Finds.” Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/veganism-environmental-impact-planet-reduced-plant-based-diet-humans-study-a8378631.html.

[8] Salvage, B. (2011, December 14). “Global Meat Consumption to Rise 73 Percent by 2050: FAO.” Retrieved from https://www.meatpoultry.com/articles/4395-global-meat-consumption-to-rise-73-percent-by-2050-fao.

[9] Burningham, G. (2016, May 25). “Lab-Grown Beef Will Save the Planet—And Be a Billion-Dollar Business.” Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/lab-grown-beef-will-save-planet-and-be-billion-dollar-business-430980.

[10] Cassiday, L. (2018, February). “Clean Meat.” Retrieved from https://www.aocs.org/stay-informed/inform-magazine/featured-articles/clean-meat-february-2018.

[11] Ireland, T. (2019, May 30). “The Artificial Meat Factory—The Science of Your Synthetic Supper.” Retrieved from https://www.sciencefocus.com/future-technology/the-artificial-meat-factory-the-science-of-your-synthetic-supper/.

[12] Nishitani, A. (2011, March 30). “Food of the Future: In Vitro Meat?” Retrieved from http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2011/issue90/.

[13] Springmann, M.C.J., Godfray, H.C.J., Rayner, M.C.J., & Scarborough, P.C.J. (2016). “Analysis and Valuation of the Health and Climate Change Cobenefits of Dietary Change.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(15), 4146–4151. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1523119113.kabi

Kabira Namit

Kabira Namit*

Princeton University

Received Sylff fellowhip in 2014-16.
Academic supervisor: Professor Anne Case
Academic achievements, social engagement initiatives:
-Stokes' Award for Leadership, Princeton Unversity for academic achievement and public service leadership
-Merit Rank for Academic Excellence, St. Xavier's College (Mumbai)
Current affiliation: World Bank

Kabira Namit is an Economist in the Education Global Practice of the World Bank Group. He joined the World Bank in 2013 and specializes in impact evaluations, learning assessments and education management information systems. In the recent past, Kabira has worked as an Economist in the Revenue and Customs department of the U.K. Government, an Economic Adviser in the Ministry of Education in Ghana and as an Economic Consultant for the Ministry of Health in Malawi. Kabira holds a Masters in Economics and Public Policy from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, a Masters in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University and an undergraduate degree in Economics and Statistics from St. Xavier's College, Mumbai. 

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kabiranamit/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Random_guy_IND

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