But are we ready to eat flesh from the lab to save the planet?
The ancient proverb, in its original spelling, “One mans meate is another mans poyson”, is one of the oldest in the English language, going back more than 400 years. The words could be adapted slightly and adopted with more modern-day relevance to “Every person’s meat is the entire planet’s poison”. Scientists across the globe have proved beyond any doubt that meat production on its current huge industrial scale is unsustainable and contributing massively to climate change, causing widespread deforestation, increased carbon emissions, impacted biodiversity and polluted waterways.
And despite significant numbers of people becoming vegetarian or vegan, meat production around the world has been on the rise since the 1960s and continues to increase, particularly in countries like Argentina, Australia and the United States. The result is that more than 70% of the planet’s uncultivated and wild areas have been changed to different use, partly for crops but also for meat-producing farm animals, with the startling result that humans and cows now account for more than 96% of all mammals on the planet.
So what is to be done?
Some small-scale farmers in the UK and abroad provide top-quality meat in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way, but it will never be enough and their products usually come with an accompanying higher price. But there is another alternative – plant-based meat. Products made from tofu and jackfruit have been around for years, are high in protein and calcium and can offer a chewy quality similar to meat.
More sophisticated plant-based foods containing ingredients such as soy protein, potato protein, coconut oil and sunflower oil, and the key ingredient, heme, a naturally occurring protein giving a meaty taste, are also appearing on supermarket shelves. And coming next there is lab-grown, or cell-cultured meat, a process in which fat or muscle stem cells are taken from either a live animal or one already in the meat processing system.
For poultry, cells can be taken from eggs. To the committed carnivore, none of these options may sound as appetising as a prime rump steak, but then we are talking about saving the planet. And there is a further consideration. Conventional farming can bring the risk of transferring viruses from animals to humans, with meat markets believed by many scientists to be the source of Covid-19. Now doesn’t that make a cell-cultured burger sound tasty?
What our surveys show
Even life-long meat eaters in the UK are gradually realising that we all need to consume less meat in order to reduce carbon emissions, protect the environment and individually do our bit to help save the planet for future generations. When we asked to what extent those surveyed agree that we need to eat less meat, an overall majority of 63% either agree, 37%, or strongly agree, 26%. Just 12% disagree, while 6% strongly disagree and 19% neither agree nor disagree. However, an appetite for cell-cultured meat is currently less appealing. We asked that if it were readily available at a comparable price and declared safe, how likely would our readers be to eat it as an alternative to meat from butchered animals.
A mere 5% said they were very likely to give it a go, while an encouraging, 33% said they were likely to eat it. But 21% said cell-cultured meat was an unlikely option on their dinner tables and a further 11% said it was very unlikely. A full 30% said they don’t know, so it seems that for many the proof of the meat pudding might be in the eating.