For millennia, the way humans procure meat has remained somewhat stagnant: We grow crops, feed them to animals, slaughter the animals, and eat the animals. Now, some major names in business, technology, and meat production are teaming up on a big bet: that we can produce real meat—actual flesh and muscle—without farming animals.
This week, Bill Gates, Jack Welch, and Richard Branson joined the venture capital firm DFJ as investors in Memphis Meats, a startup company working to produce meat from self-reproducing animal cells. At the same time, Cargill—one of the world’s largest meat producers—announced that it’s taken a stake in the company as well.
The technology works by isolating animal cells (which could be taken from even a single feather of a chicken, for example) and feeding those cells oxygen and nutrients to produce muscle that can be formed into chicken patties, nuggets, or burgers.
The investors backing this technology understand its disruptive potential. And that’s a good thing, because the world’s food production system is in serious need of disruption.
As our global population has exploded over the last century, so too has our demand for protein; and with much of our protein coming from animals, the results have been terrible. In 1950, all of U.S. agriculture slaughtered roughly 100 million farm animals; by 2015, that number had ballooned to 9.2 billion. During roughly the same time the number of farm animals was increasing by 9,400%, the number of farmers producing those animals decreased by 60%.
So many more animals raised by fewer farmers? That’s factory farming, and it’s taking a toll.
It’s taking a toll on animals themselves—largely removed from the red barn farms of yesteryear into industrialized warehouses. Pigs are now locked in crates so small they can’t even turn around. Egg-laying hens are crammed into cages so tightly packed they can’t even spread their wings. Chickens raised for meat are bred to grow so fat so fast it’d be like a human baby weighing nearly 700 pounds at just two months of age.
It’s taking a toll on our planet, with industrial meat production a top contributor to climate change. According to the United Nations, it’s responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s cars, planes, trucks, ships, and trains combined.
And it’s taking a toll on public health, with medical authorities concerned about the overuse of antibiotics in our meat supply. Antibiotics are used largely to make all those billions of animals grow unnaturally fast and keep them alive through conditions so filthy and inhumane they might not otherwise make it to market.
These concerns set the stage for the emergence of plant-based meats (made from products like pea protein). They’ve existed for decades, but they’re now capturing an ever-increasing share of the protein sector; in fact, plant-based meat sales are growing at twice the rate as processed meats. Concepts like “Meatless Monday” have taken off, too, as more institutions come to appreciate the value of meat reduction and more diverse menu offerings. And many people are following the three “R”s of eating: “reducing” and “replacing” consumption of animal products and “refining” our diets by choosing products from sources that adhere to higher animal welfare standards, an approach embraced by groups like mine.
Companies like Memphis Meats represent an additional path forward. Will their innovative approach become the game-changer Bill Gates, Cargill, and others hope it will? That’s up to consumers, though studies show that a great many of us—one-third, according to a study of U.S. consumers by the University of Queensland—are already open to eating the product, which is remarkable considering it doesn’t even exist yet. Hopefully that number will rise, because in a world with an ever-growing population and ever-growing demand for protein, we need all hands—and forks—on deck to create a better food supply that’s more efficient, more sustainable, and more humane.
Matthew Prescott is author of the forthcoming book Food Is the Solution: What to Eat to Save the World (due out spring 2018) and senior director of food policy for The Humane Society of the United States.