Hype and misinformation feed artificial meat story

Artificial meat will soon replace natural meat in the human diet, signalling humankind’s profound switch to a more humane and environmentally friendly diet, and allowing massive areas of the earth’s surface to be rewilded to solve humanity’s greenhouse emission challenges, according to George Monbiot, a prominent opinion writer for The Guardian newspaper in the UK.

There are so many misleading statements and selected ‘facts’ in Monbiot’s article, it’s difficult to know where to start. It’s not even clear from the article which type of artificial meat Monbiot is talking about. There are two different types and these are cultured meat, which is grown in a laboratory using stem cells from cows and foetal calf blood serum, and synthetic meat, made from a mixture of plant extracts, chemicals and vitamin additives.

Of the two, cultured meat remains at the laboratory stage, and despite being heavily hyped and promoted as solving the world’s environmental problems, is yet to be scaled up to commercial production. In fact, in recent times there have been articles questioning the potential environmental credentials of cultured meat, with one suggestion that by the time all the inputs and fermentation technology is accounted for, the greenhouse footprint of cultured meats may not be that different from conventional meat. It has also been pointed out that a reliance of foetal calf serum as a growing medium is somewhat problematic and defeats the whole purpose of the effort, although the proponents insist they will be able to use genetically modified yeasts as a substitute in the future, once the process is refined.

Artificial meat, essentially made from plant matter, is being championed by companies such as Impossible Foods, and their products are currently available in premium hamburger outlets in the United States. According to the company website, ingredients of artificial meat patties include:

Water, Textured Wheat Protein, Coconut Oil, Potato Protein, Natural Flavours, 2% or less of: Leghemoglobin (Soy), Yeast Extract, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Konjac Gum, Xanthan Gum, Vitamin C, Thiamine (Vitamin B1), Zinc, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.

As some have pointed out, natural meat does not require all these additives because they are already included, and enthusiastic consumers of these products may be surprised at the amount of extracts of genetically modified crops they include. A key feature of Impossible Foods’ hamburger patties is a form of artificial ‘blood’ – heme – which is produced using a genetically engineered yeast, and is claimed to give the patties their meat-like taste.

The major ‘claimed’ advantages of artificial meats are a large reduction in the area of land used to produce human food, and also a big reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. As an example, Monbiot makes the claim:

Almost all forms of animal farming cause environmental damage, but none more so than keeping them outdoors. The reason is inefficiency. Grazing is not just slightly inefficient; it is stupendously wasteful. Roughly twice as much of the world’s surface is used for grazing as for growing crops, yet animals fed entirely on pasture produce just 1 gram out of the 81 grams of protein consumed per person per day.

Of course, anyone with even a modicum of knowledge of agriculture would quickly point out that grazing animals are almost universally confined to land that is unsuited for cropping because it is too poor, too steep, too rocky, part of a cropping rotation, or in an area that is climatically unsuited. Therefore, the comparison that Monbiot makes about the ‘efficiency’ of use of farming land by grazing animals and crops is completely nonsensical, because the land being compared is fundamentally different.

The question of the greenhouse emission footprint of grazing livestock is also an interesting one. Various claims are made about the significance of emissions from grazing livestock, but what is poorly understood is that to some extent the international greenhouse accounting system used to estimate livestock emissions creates a misleading picture. The accounting system estimates gross emissions from livestock, without netting out the carbon dioxide that has been sequestered in the plant matter consumed by grazing animals.

This creates the perception that removing the livestock will stop any greenhouse emissions arising from that land. This may be the case in high rainfall and fertile areas where revegetation on that land would act as a carbon sink, but the vast majority of the world’s grazed livestock do not live on high-rainfall fertile farmland, but on savannahs and rangelands.

In these regions, if livestock are removed and the extra carbon that is sequestered as vegetation builds up is subsequently emitted into the atmosphere again due to more frequent and uncontrolled bushfires (as frequently occurs in most rangeland and savannah regions) then the actual greenhouse emission advantage due to the removal of grazing livestock will be much less than it might seem to an uninformed opinion writer.

Underlying much of the enthusiasm for artificial meats seems to be the belief that all forms of livestock farming are inherently cruel, and artificial meats are a way of still enjoying the taste of meat, without the cruelty. Interestingly, though, Monbiot’s suggestion is that areas currently used for livestock farming be ‘rewilded’ – presumably by reintroducing native fauna including predators. The result would be that the grazing animals in these areas would experience disease and predation, resulting in much crueller deaths than ever experienced by domestic animals. Whether this represents a reduction in animal cruelty is an interesting moral question.

Ultimately, people are free to eat what they like, and if they prefer a vegetarian diet or lab grown or artificial meat rather than natural meat, then they are free to make that choice. However, they should not make that choice based on the misleading and distorted information promoted by opinion writers like Monbiot.

Image:  Impossible Foods