Clean Plate? Lab-to-Table Meat Detours Around Animal Cruelty

Of the 9 billion land animals raised for food in the United States each year, less than 1 percent live out their lives on pasture, breathing fresh air. The vast majority reside instead within overcrowded warehouses, barely able to move or engage in natural behaviors. This industrial-scale farming causes terrible animal suffering, and has taken a tremendous toll on the environment, as well. According to a 2013 UN Food and Agriculture Organization study, animal agriculture accounts for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. It is also responsible for massive amounts of deforestation and water use.

But new technology could soon change all this. A fledgling “clean meat” industry is looking to transform the way meat is produced by removing the animal altogether—growing meat straight from cells, eliminating the need for factory farming and all the harm that comes with it. Replacing animals with cell-grown meat would mean billions of animals would no longer languish on overcrowded industrialized farms. Additionally, clean meat doesn’t require use of antibiotics and has an exponentially smaller environmental impact than conventional animal agriculture. Memphis Meats, a San Francisco Bay–area start-up that is seeking to mass produce cultured meat and poultry, predicts it can deliver meat that will require 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, land, and water than conventionally produced meat.

While this sounds like something that will occur far off in the future, production is already well underway. Last year, Memphis Meats rolled out the world’s first meatball from lab-grown animal cells. It has since done the same with fried chicken and duck. Meanwhile, another company, MosaMeat, based in the Netherlands, unveiled the very first cell-grown hamburger. These start-ups, among others, are focused on refining their products and decreasing production prices so that the cost to consumers will be the same or less than that of traditional meats. And this could happen extraordinarily fast; Memphis Meats estimates that their products will reach grocery stores by 2021.

Though it’s a relatively new industry, clean meat has seen astronomical growth and investment. Memphis Meats has caught the attention of billionaire investors Bill Gates and Richard Branson, the latter even claiming that he believes “in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.” Memphis Meats is also backed by DFJ, a venture capital firm that has previously invested in Twitter, Tesla, and SpaceX. The conventional meat industry itself is even jumping on board: Cargill, the world’s largest supplier of ground beef, announced this past August that it was investing in Memphis Meats.

Clean meat has the potential to be an incredibly appealing solution to one of the world’s most harrowing and complex problems. This industry is well positioned to change the entire face of meat production for the benefit of animals, the planet, and consumers. And with the demand for meat expected to increase by at least 65 percent by 2050, the timing could not be better.

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