Thursday, 8 August 2013

Is lab-bred “meat” really the end of livestock farming?

It had been hailed in some quarters as the answer to our food security prayers. Real meat, grown in a lab. It will mean we can pack up farming livestock, apart from the lucky few animals kept organically so we can extract stem cells from them for breeding/growing more cells. That’s better for the environment, better for the animals and better for us.

Some pressure groups were quick to hail this as a major breakthrough ahead of the official first testing in a staged event earlier this week. Then we saw the product being cooked and tasted. People then really started to think about the claims and are perhaps having second thoughts about adding it to their menus, judging by the tone of much of the coverage in the media.

There is no doubt the technology and expertise demonstrated by this research is astounding. The case for doing the research appears sound as well, if you take the figures quoted at face value:

“Right now, we are using 70 per cent of all our agricultural capacity to grow meat through livestock.”

“Livestock create 18 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions.”

However, look a little closer and the figures perhaps start to look less commanding. In the UK, 64% of agricultural land cannot be used for cropping. Therefore, grazing livestock make efficient and sustainable use of that land to produce food we can eat. They effectively manage the countryside and help preserve our landscape. This also means that grain and other concentrates used to feed cattle in the UK is minimal compared to other countries. It is perhaps better to match production of foods to where on the planet they can be produced most efficiently and sustainably, rather than outlaw them outright. For beef, that would be the UK.

The oft-quoted 18 per cent figure comes from the Livestock’s Long Shadow report from the FAO, the food and agriculture organisation of the United Nations, in 2006. Some of the work in the research on livestock, in particular the direct comparison to the environmental impact of transport, has now been debunked by the scientists who did the work. A revised report is due out soon and is likely to see that figure drastically reduced. In the EU, a Joint Research Council report in 2011 put the figure at 9.2 per cent of all emissions, In the UK, the figure may be closer to seven per cent. This certainly puts things in a different light.

That is not to say we are not working hard to reduce environmental impact. We are, but these changes with animals take time, through better breeding, improved grassland management and different husbandry techniques. We cannot simply flick a switch to insert a catalytic converter as you could do with a vehicle. Calling for an end to livestock production to solve all the ills of climate change seems a bit of an over-reaction with no absolute proof of the level of its effectiveness. We will  still need to produce food to fill the void left and every food production enterprise has a carbon footprint,  particularly if it has spent years being produced in a laboratory.

Then there is the nutritional side to this so-called Frankenburger.  Beef is nutrient dense with vitamins and amino acids, and is rich in iron. There is no suggestion the lab-bred “meat” has these benefits. Any move away from the current consumption of meat in the UK diet – which falls within levels recommended by the Government – may have adverse health effects as these essential nutrients are removed and not easily found in this concentration in other foods.

Should we mention taste? The lab-grown burger has little, according to those who have tried it, so why would people eat it even if it was commercially available – though at £250,000 for one burger, easy and affordable access to the product still seems a long way off.

And the yuck factor? Grown in a lab with a host of additives to make it the right colour, hold it together etc (including plasma from unborn cattle, it has been reported). This seems to be pointing to intensive processed food production, something many pressure groups argue we need to move away from.

So while this breakthrough
is incredibly clever and something to watch with interest, claims that it is a replacement for livestock farming are premature at best. It remains a pale imitation of the real thing with credentials far from proven.