According to projections from the United Nations, Earth's human population is on track to reach eleven billion people by 2050; and in case this seems like a a far distant future, keep in mind that as of 2017 this is a mere 33 years away–a single generation. How will the Earth feed all of these people?
The Green Revolution of the 20th century was about increasing yields of calorie-rich cereals, in some cases more than doubling the yield per hectare. It's possible that a second Green Revolution from GM crops could double the global yield again, but not without a large environmental cost. The Green Revolution has already had an environmental cost (PDF link see "Problems with the Green Revolution" section) that will only get worse with a larger population.
Just as the Green Revolution of industrial agriculture was needed to support our current population of over 7 billion people, a new leapfrog technology is required to support human life into the 21st century by providing cheap calories that do not degrade our environment – meat (but not as you know it) may be the answer.
Gram per gram, meat generally has more calories than vegetables and many food scientists believe that meat is more nutritionally complete than plant-based foods, because it contains fats, proteins and essential fatty acids. But a meat diet comes with many drawbacks for humans: animal cruelty, health risks and the impacts on the environment. The environmental cost of meat production is especially dire: livestock produces up to 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions and it takes up to 15,000 liters of fresh water to produce a single kilo of beef.
Lab grown meat is a new technology that removes many of the downsides of meat. It uses techniques from the medical science of tissue generation to create the meat tissue without having a complete animal. A small amount of cells are removed from the "donor" animal and placed in a growth medium, usually a lattice-like structure in a nutrient bath that allows the meat cells to multiply and clot on the substrate structure. In a nutrient bath, the cells multiply and connect until they form something that looks like meat.
The first lab-grown burger - a little dry, but definitely meat! (image, courtesy Reuters)
Described clinically, it's enough to make even the bravest red meat lover a little squeamish, but actual burgers have been tested and were given reasonably high marks for a first try. Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University created the custom burger by layering strips of substrate infused with the cultured beef cells and then added a bit of beet juice to give it a dark red appearance. Food critics said it was dry, and not juicy, but definitely tasted like meat.
That initial custom burger cost over US $300,000 to make but the university team behind its creation spun-off a private company and have already slashed the cost of the burger to a mere US $11.
And it's not just beef, universities and research institutes are looking at turkey and chicken cultures that could be produced in the same way. Over 51 billion chickens are raised and slaughtered every year globally, creating a sizeable environmental impact and animal welfare issues.
Having a cheap source of "meat" is important if the product is meant to take off outside of the developed world, but even more important than the price is the environmental benefit of lab grown meat over traditional livestock:
A recent study showed that lab grown meat may potentially use 55% less energy than livestock, and only has 4% of the greenhouse gas emissions.
With its higher caloric density and lower impact on the environment, cultured meat may be just the "red meat revolution" the world needs to feed itself and protect the planet along the road to 2050 - we'll have 11 billion hungry burger eaters and counting.