Industrial innovations, such as the lab grown burger, have the potential to drive human development whilst also protecting the environment, writes Dr Patrick Haid.
(Image via thankingthemonkey.com)

WE ARE AT THE DAWN of a new industrial revolution, and the possibilities are profound.

In eighteenth century Europe, the discovery of a new fuel source, the mechanisation of industry and the reorganisation of modern labour revolutionised the world. In the nineteenth century, the harnessing of electric energy and modern communications formed the core of a second industrial revolution. And in the twentieth century, Ford’s workforce innovations reorganised the way the world worked again.

Each of these revolutions drove economic and scientific development, and increased the living standard of millions. But they were not universally positive projects; each was resource hungry, and in many ways self-serving. Their primary concerns were industrial development and material output, while human and environmental concerns were secondary. Increasingly, we are seeing the effects of these priorities.

In the twenty-first century, much human industry remains powered by the dirty fuel of centuries past, and relies on abusive labour practices. It has not priced environmental impact into its model and so does not adequately respect the resources it requires. And animal agriculture – one of the largest industrial contributors to climate change and environmental degradation – is failing to feed humanity. This unsustainable picture suggests that industry needs to evolve again.

History suggests that crisis is often the spark for ingenuity. For example, the fear of mass starvation throughout the developing world drove improvements in cropping practices in the 1960s that we know as the Green Revolution. We now need a similar revolution to address the problems of problems of animal agriculture in order to address a range of human, environmental and animal welfare issues that our current industrial systems are not equipped to address.

It has long been known that plant based diets use far less land, fuel and water than their meat-based alternatives, but it is also understood that the world does not want to be vegetarian. In fact, we are moving in the opposite direction.

In the eighteenth century, meat comprised about 2% of the calories in an average European diet, but since this time production and consumption have expanded exponentially. Worldwide consumption has trebled over the last four decades, and is expected to double again by 2050. Burgeoning middle classes in the developing world seek western-style diets heavy in animal protein at the same time as expert reports warn that the world needs to drastically reduce its meat intake in order to maintain a habitable planet.

Producing meat is highly inefficient.

If we were designing a healthy and cost effective system of protein production from scratch now, animal agriculture would not be considered. It takes on average six kilograms of plant protein to produce one kilogram of meat protein, a wastage rate of 85%. The 60 billion animals who live and die on factory farms each year consume 40% of the world’s grain and 70% the world’s soy. Furthermore, three-quarters of the available freshwater and about one third of the earth’s land area is used for food production, and three quarters of this concerns animal production.

And despite half a century of crop agricultural improvements and intensifications in livestock farming, there are more hungry people on earth – about one billion – than at any time in history, with a further two billion malnourished.

This is while our planet is home to 7.2 billion people — how we will fare with the 9.6 billion we expect to inhabit it by 2050 is a whole different matter.

Something has to give. How do we balance the desire and rising demand for meat with the undeniable need for change?

Clearly, our systems needs to evolve.

Just as the first industrial revolution could not be powered by an archaic fuel source, the revolution of the twenty-first century will also require a fundamental shift. We need a source of protein that is more desirable and efficient than traditional animal protein, to the same extent that coal was an advance over organic matter in eighteenth century Europe.

Cutting edge technologies like lab-grown meat and other novel protein foods could provide this source. They have the potential to be much cheaper and are undeniably healthier and cleaner than current sources of protein. They are becoming viable commercial options as the economic, scientific and cultural barriers that once stood in their way appear less daunting, and the potential gains much greater.

Several companies are attacking these problems with promising results. Modern Meadow, a company that expects to be printing leather with 3D technology by 2017 (and meat shortly thereafter), says that at scale, its methods use 99% less land, 96% less water, emit 96% less greenhouse gas and half as much energy as present production.

Academics like Mark Post have produced and eaten a lab-grown burger that does not need to have a cow. Well funded start-ups, like Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek Foods, have created novel plant-based proteins that, according to mainstream food critics, are almost indistinguishable from their animal-based analogs — eggs and chicken.

Each of these companies has attracted big investment from noted and successful financiers and venture capitalists, including Bill Gates (Microsoft), Biz Stone (Twitter), and Peter Thiel (Paypal, Facebook). These are individuals not in the habit of making losing bets. Their involvement is supplying the resources, legitimacy and prestige that altering our consumption patterns will require.

Fundamentally, the economics here is simple.

There is a huge new market coming online throughout the world and we do not have the capacity or resources to meet this demand. The people who solve this problem stand to make a lot of money.

The current moment presents an opportunity to reinvigorate industry, transform the relationship between humanity and the environment, address animal welfare concerns, and feed the world. The necessity and desire for change will be driven by the gross imbalance in supply and demand in our current systems. Technological developments are providing high quality, sustainable products like the lab-grown and plant-based meats. And the enormous market opportunity that these developments represent is clear.

We are nearing a crisis point. But the tools we need to drive change are no longer the stuff of science science fiction. They are here now, and they need us to understand their potential benefits for humans, animals and the environment.

Just as social justice and food securities will not create the momentum for change on their own, neither will scientific development, economics, or animal-rights activism. But together, this coalition is formidable.

Creative Commons LicenceThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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