Test tube of meat anyone?

By the year 2050, less than 40 years away, the population is estimated to be 9 billion. 80% of our ever expanding population will live in urban areas and cities, but it is estimated that 109 hectares of new land (about 20% more land that is represented by the country of Brazil) will be needed to grow enough food to feed them if we continue to farm our food as we do today. So what can we do to provide enough food for 9 million hungry mouths?

One answer might be to make the most of the land that we have, for example through vegetable factories. These are a far cry from the rolling muddy fields with crops blowing in the breeze – they are huge white walled sterile rooms, filled with stacks of vegetables that will have never touched soil and never been in contact with the outside air. The nutrient matter they are planted in is carefully monitored and the humidity, temperature and UV light in the environment are controlled. The vegetables produced here are “cleaner” and it is claimed they are “healthier”.

Vertical factories are already encroaching on the UK’s shores. In 2010, Paignton Zoo installed a vertical farm to grow all the leaf vegetables for its animals. The old fashioned keepers look decidedly out of hand when standing next to the gleaming white 8 layered high rotating machine but it’s an efficient use of the space.

Emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology, may allow us to take further advantage of food sources we already have. Another possibility is finding alternative protein sources; I wrote about the potential joys of insects as a protein source in a previous blog.

However, one potential food of the future caught my eye in the news a couple of days ago; artificial meat!

“In a small laboratory on an upper floor of the basic science building at the Medical University of South Carolina, Vladimir Mironov, M.D., Ph.D., has been working for a decade to grow meat,” Reuters reported. ‘Cultured meat’ was originally conceived as a means to make food for astronauts to take on long space missions. With a single cell, you could theoretically produce the world’s annual meat supply in a way that’s better for the environment and human health. Essentially scientists are striving to grow a piece of meat in a test tube!

Worldwide, livestock production occupies 70% of all land used for agriculture, or 30% of the land surface of the Earth. Scientists attribute more than 18% of greenhouse gas emissions to livestock and livestock-related activities such as deforestation and increasingly fuel-intensive farming practices. Growing meat products in a lab would have a much smaller impact on the environment than our current practices.

Scientists further promote the concept of ‘cultured meat’, claiming that meat that has never been part of an entire living animal is potentially far cleaner and healthier. Sounds ideal! But unfortunately there are many hurdles before cultured meat will be coming to a menu near you. Firstly, at the moment the process of making the ‘meat; is phenomenally expensive. Only the richest men and women on earth would be able to afford a fillet steak. And that brings us on to the next point; the scientists can create a batch of cells but they lack the form and structure of meat – looks more like a meat smoothie right now, ummm gross!

Still, advances are being made the entire time, so perhaps a device to grow your own meat may be sitting next to the bread maker in this lifetime! The main obstacle of artificial meat may turn out to be its public acceptance. While we may be prepared to eat processed food, artificial confections such as Quorn (a protein-rich fungus) and burgers containing who-knows-what animal parts, the notion of man-made meat seems uniquely repellent and unnatural. Hopefully this will be a simple matter of educating consumer tastes.

I have to say I’m fascinated by the prospect of growing my own steaks! I wonder what the future of food will really look like!

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