Artificial meat from the lab – Update: Where are we, where are we going?

The last climate conference (the 27th, this time in Cairo) just ended. As in almost all such conferences, nothing concrete came out of it. Could we expect anything at all? Well, the political debate on how to combat and mitigate climate change has hardly ever produced anything, especially given the very short time we humans have left to significantly change the structure of our energy consumption and thus prevent apocalyptic climate change. As „apocalyptic“ we must consider a global increase in average temperature of more than two degrees Celsius. What then happens on Earth could, due to the onset of non-linear effects – i.e. no longer a proportional relationship between CO2 levels and global temperatures – and a correspondingly massive temperature increase, not only fundamentally change human life on Earth, but also make it irreversible. And that is precisely the devastating thing: The fact that in thirty to forty years we will most likely be able to use a CO2-neutral form of energy globally – higher efficiency of photovoltaics, more geothermal energy, up to and including nuclear fusion, which could solve the problem of energy supply altogether- could hardly help us in that case, if the tipping points towards non-linear temperature increases have already increased it by a substantial amount compared to the linear relationship. So we need to reshape the forms of energy accordingly now, not in the next generation of rulers.  And this has already processed in Europe (almost alone) in first, still far from adequate, steps. But here, too, the big steps to protect the global climate have only been decided for after 2030, i.e. at a time when most of today’s politicians, who make grandiose speeches and slogans about their climate policies, will probably no longer be in office.

There is a whole other dimension to environmental policy that is often hardly featured in both social and political discussion: Our diet (for a long time only that of Europe and North America due to our wealth, but today almost everywhere in the world) causes a significant amount of greenhouse gases: animal farming for meat. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), it accounts for almost 15 per cent of total CO2 emissions worldwide (for comparison: all flights worldwide, which in addition to CO2 emissions also emit nitrogen oxides and water vapor in high atmospheric layers, account for almost 4.9 per cent). And this trend for our animals’ contributions is increasing dramatically (hopefully in contrast to transport, including flights), both with the growing world population per se, and through the increase in economic power and wealth in Asia. What Europeans and Americans take for granted today – the almost daily consumption of meat – would lead globally to an unsustainable increase in animal husbandry and thus in CO2 emissions (more precisely, „CO2 equivalent“ emissions: the CH4 emitted by animals has a climate effect 20 times that of CO2). In addition, grazing land for animal feed takes up about 17% of the earth’s habitable land, and all agriculture together, where animals make up about 33%, uses 69%(!) of the global freshwater, with all the serious water problems. Thus, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its „Special Report on Climate Change and Land Systems 2020“ in August 2019 – hardly noticed by the public as well as politicians – also called for a turnaround in human meat consumption.

But it is precisely here, like almost any hope of solving the climate effect, that technological advances could soon bring about massive changes, namely through meat that comes from 3D printers. Such „printers“ use a few muscle stem cells from, for example, cattle, which are artificially grown and multiplied, and then mixed with nutrients, salts, pH buffers, etc. The result will probably soon taste more delicious and at the same time be healthier than all animal meat up to now and … will produce almost no CO2 emissions! Anyone who doubts that such artificially produced in-vitro meat is more appetizing or that the diet is healthier should spend just a few hours in a large-scale slaughterhouse. Then he or she will probably quickly lose their appetite for today’s meat.

It is worth briefly explaining the history of in vitro meat (which I have already done in detail in previous blogs and in my 2021 climate book): Almost ten years ago, scientists from Maastricht University produced the first artificial meatball at a cost of 250,000 euros. Today, its name varies in everyday life with both positive and negative connotations: „healthy meat“, „slaughter-free meat“, „in vitro meat“, „meat from the vat“, „meat from the lab“, „cell-based meat“, „clean meat“, „cultured meat“ and „synthetic meat“. For production, special 3D bio-printers assemble the cultivated cell strands into muscle tissue in series. In terms of palatability, they work with gourmet chefs, as well as food technicians, flavor experts and manufacturers of flavors and fragrances, with the aim of making the respective taste deceptively similar to that of a corresponding steak today – and even improving it by adding appropriate aromas. Today, such in-vitro meats are already on the market, most prominently in Singapore and Israel. In Europe, they have been approved since this year, March 2022, and will probably enter the market in 2023. And in the USA this also happened in November 2022. The lab meat has „no further questions at this time about the firm’s safety conclusion.“, according to a statement from the FDA .

Plant-based imitations of fish and meat have been on the market for a long time and taste better and better. In vitro meat from artificially propagated chicken, cattle or fish cells is now the next step. Meanwhile, testers are almost unanimous in attesting that the printed steaks taste almost like real meat and are tasty, firm to the bite and fibrous like the original, even if some talk about it being even slightly softer than animal meat. And meanwhile, the general press has also jumped on this new animal meat substitute. Will there soon be no more livestock farming, but still meat that no longer comes from the pasture, but that we simply print out? This could ensure that the world’s growing population is fed with meat, greatly reduce its ecological footprint and even improve our sense of well-being when we eat. What a great vision!

Traditional meat producers are already fighting against this and still have an overwhelming number of people who can still hardly imagine eating artificial meat. Green meadows and happy cattle in advertises give today’s meat products a myth of naturalness, even if in reality their production is unappetizingly industrial. It will be extremely exciting to see how meat substitutes will soon compete with the original meat products. Considering the popularity of plant-based meat substitutes has grown so dramatically fast, it is to be expected that the new high-tech meat substitutes will also enjoy tremendous popularity over time. This could eventually lead to a historic turnaround in global meat consumption, with a very positive impact on the carbon footprint. Perhaps, together with the increasingly CO2-neutral use of energy, we will manage to avert the climate catastrophe. At the moment, this seems to be a difficult optimism to comprehend. But the massive speed of new technological possibilities is simply not conceivable for most people.

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