Beyond Meat: The Lab Food Revolution

A few days ago, a protest by meat producers outside the branches of one of the largest banks in the country made headlines in the press. A  barbecue on the sidewalk was the response to a bank’s ad endorsing the “Monday Without Meat” campaign.

Animal husbandry is responsible for a sizeable portion of greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock accounts for about 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, there is a need to guarantee food.

According to the  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO, it will be necessary to increase food production by <> 70 %<>by 2050 <> to meet the demand generated by populational growth. The challenge is great due to resource and land limitations, opening opportunities for new food production, and improving the sustainability of current productions.

In this scenario, cellular agriculture gains a promising perspective. It is one of the alternatives to producing food without having to raise or slaughter animals. And it is not restricted to laboratory-produced meat. With it, it is also possible to produce milk, poultry, fish, or other products. Initially, the technologies to produce these foods in the laboratory came from stem cells or animal DNA. But new techniques have been created.

In California, two bioengineers created a startup that produces a liquid in the lab with the same properties and flavor as milk. In the process, instead of removing DNA from a cow, they insert genes already decoded into the milk proteins into the fungi. The fungi then produce the proteins in a fermentation process and the resulting product, remarkably similar to milk, can be used to make ice cream or cream cheeses.

Researchers in various parts of the world have been developing processes to produce cell meat from different animals, such as sheep, pork, fish, and chicken. But there are still several limitations for meat, milk, and other products made in a laboratory to reach the market, such as the still prohibitive cost and the need to create scale, in addition to ensuring compliance with food standards.

Far beyond laboratories

But scientists are also developing other innovations to reduce emissions. Among them are the inclusion of enzymes and additives in animal feed, pasture management to improve the digestion process, and even a vaccine to reduce the amount of methane gas produced by the animals.

While technology can help us to considerably reduce the carbon footprint in food production, the effort must also undergo changing consumer behavior. A few decades ago, food production was enough to feed far more than the world’s population. Statistics show that about 17% of the food produced worldwide is wasted.

According to FAO, waste happens at all stages, in harvesting or production, transportation, processing, retailing, and at homes. Each of them generates a carbon footprint. This means that, in addition to the waste of carbon released during food production, greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere as these foods deteriorate.

Reducing food waste by improving storage, cooling, and transportation methods, as well as rational distribution, can help contain global warming.

For the world to achieve the zero-carbon emission target by 2050, as defined in the Paris Agreement on climate change, we will all need to do our part.