Is synthetic beef a threat to the cattle industry?

Lab meat has plenty of hurdles to overcome before it can replace ruminants

Recent news that technology has been developed to produce artificial or “ersatz” meat has caused a ripple of concern in the livestock industry. NOT TO WORRY! A couple of generations ago there were confident predictions of manufactured fluid milk and it hasn’t happened.

But while I say, not to worry, I don’t mean that it will never happen. Perhaps I should have said, bring it on. Here’s why.

No invention will ever eclipse the wonders of ruminant agriculture. Our domesticated species of cattle, bison, sheep and goats have evolved to convert forage and pasture crops inedible for humans into high-quality, protein-rich meat and milk. They do this mainly by grazing three out of every four acres of agricultural land on earth. Lest anti-meat advocates jump on this “wasteful use of agricultural land” a fact check is in order. No less an authority than the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN has classified the global agricultural land resource and has determined that three out of every four acres should be classified as grazing land because that is the best use to which those three out of every four acres can be put.

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So, are we going to idle 75 per cent of our agricultural land because someone has invented a way to “make meat in a lab?” I think not.

Let’s just imagine that it could happen. To replace beef and other ruminant meat on a global scale we would need to manufacture about 80 million tonnes of synthetic “meat” each year. That’s for today’s populations. Others have estimated that we will have to double the meat protein supply to adequately meet the needs of an expected nine to 10 billion people by mid-century. Whether we will need a 25 per cent or a 50 per cent increase in protein supply is debatable, but what isn’t debatable would be the folly of idling 75 per cent of the agricultural land in favour of huge meat producing factories. I have not included milk or eggs or poultry meat or pork in this discussion, but just to give dimension to the challenge here is the present level of global production of these livestock products:

  • Ruminant meat — 80 million tonnes
  • Pork — 113 million tonnes
  • Poultry meat — 111 million tonnes
  • Eggs — 71 million tonnes
  • Milk — 500 million tonnes

Has anybody thought about what the necessary inputs would be in those meat factories? My guess is that the inputs would be mainly grain but possibly it could also include forage from the idled pasture lands. If the major input is grain we will need a massive increase in grain production that will test, and likely surpass, the available acreage. If the pasture lands are to be harvested as an input we will need to turn to “John Deere” and his ilk to figure out how to replace cattle, sheep and goats that provide their own locomotion, grazing and digestion capabilities without the need for fossil fuels.

So, how does resorting to increased cropping activity and reduced grazing contribute to the “carbon footprint” left by ruminants? Logically ruminants produce no more CO2 than is latent in the feedstuffs they eat. Doubtlessly the beef factories, if they were ever to come into existence, would also generate an even greater amount of CO2 in the meat manufacturing process?

So, the first and considerable cost is replacing the self-locomotion, self-harvesting and internal digestion processes of ruminants with electrical and fossil fuel energy power to power the harvesting machinery and the stationary machinery in the meat factories.

Let us as well consider the fact, also stated by the FAO, that “86 per cent of what livestock eat globally is human inedible plants and leftovers.”

A final somewhat tongue-in-cheek comment is to ask if any factory worker anywhere would work for the wages paid to that contented cow or sheep grazing on yon hillside.

So, it strikes me that the dream of producing artificial meat is based on the fallacy that ruminants grazing on pastures and other livestock species consuming grain and food wastes is somehow a greater threat to our environment than marshalling those same inputs into massive factories to do the same thing nature has been doing for eons.

And even if all the inherent problems were solved the greatest hurdle of all might be to get anybody to eat the stuff.

About the author

Contributor

Charlie Gracey is a beef industry analyst living in Ontario. More detail on this topic is available on his website at www.charlesgracey.net.

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