It can be argued that continual changes in our approaches to acquiring and growing food are significant factors in shaping human evolution. Given the uncertainties around climate change, there is currently a lot of pressure on individuals to change behaviors to lower personal impacts on the climate, one of which is the reduction of meat consumption. Therefore, it is unsurprising that processes such as growing “meat” in a laboratory system are being considered.
It is an appealing idea: that one choice is a potential solution to human impacts on the carbon system, which currently appears to be out of balance. However, I believe that a cultured protein system actually has higher impacts on the planet than traditional animal production. I also believe that, when conducted with love and respect, animal husbandry is a noble part of the human endeavor and should be valued, supported and continued.
I decided to write this commentary because I believe my background as both a cattle rancher and a laboratory worker gives me insight that others may not have. I have a BS in Chemistry and spent years of my adulthood culturing eukaryotic (aka mammalian) cells in a biotechnology setting before returning as an adult to continue the family ranching tradition. I have followed the development of the “cultured meat” industry with interest and scrutiny.
The only reason I would currently consider it appropriate to grow protein in a closed unnatural system would be to survive in space. Otherwise, I believe that the current climate change impacts on our planet and the potential impacts to the safety of our food system are higher and more challenging to monitor and control in a laboratory setting than in the traditional animal system. I believe grazing animals is a natural and beneficial part of this planet’s biome and should continue. Currently, growing “meat” in a laboratory setting has a higher environmental impact than raising live animals to be slaughtered and eaten. This fledging industry is being propped up by venture capital, and currently has no means of existing as an industry without artificial support.
There is also always the possibility of the cultured system being infected with a macrophage, yeast, or another microbe that requires the entire stream to be discarded. A sick animal can be removed from the food chain, returned to health, and re-entered into the food system. A vat full of “meat” cells must be discarded, the system sterilized, and the process restarted—thus wasting all of the energy and resources put into potentially producing that product.
Furthermore, cultured cells have no beneficial bi-products. Animals grown for the food chain provide positive inputs to the carbon cycle. They deposit manure into fields to increase the health of a variety of ecosystems. Their grazing provides beneficial reduction of fuel on public lands as wildfires become a more serious problem. Grazing can also control invasive weeds which will only increase as human populations increase and move around more. I can envision a time when space exploration begins, and “cultured meat” may serve a role for humans. However, I do not believe it is a viable replacement for long-standing and proven traditional agriculture.
Jaime Yturriondobeitia has a BS in Chemistry. She worked in biotechnology growing mammalian cells and made artisanal cheese at Shelburne Farms before returning to the family cattle ranch where she was raised.