Commentary: Science fiction no more, can lab-grown meat feed — and save — the world?

With six Oscar nominations — including best picture and actor — Darkest Hour is fascinating audiences with its portrayal of Winston Churchill facing history-altering decisions at a turning point in World War Two. In fact, Churchill had been thinking about the future of humanity in rather radical ways for years already.

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In 1931, Churchill published an essay, Fifty Years Hence, in which he made predictions about what the world might look like by the 1980s. Among the more stunning: that humans would figure out how to permanently divorce meat production from animal husbandry.

“We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing,” Churchill prophesied, “by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” Because doing so would free up land that had been used for growing crops to feed farm animals, he concluded, “parks and gardens will cover our pastures and ploughed fields.”

Churchill was a few decades off, but we now have the capacity to do exactly as he foresaw: to grow real meat outside of animals’ bodies.

In recent years, so-called “clean meat” — a term first popularized by the nonprofit Good Food Institute as a nod to both “clean energy” and to the meat’s food safety benefits — has moved out of the realm of science fiction and become scientific fact. The first "clean burger" debuted in 2013, thanks in part to research and development funding from Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Since 2014, I've had the good fortune to eat clean beef, duck, fish, chorizo, liver, and yogurt, all of it grown without animals. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, clean meat tastes like meat since, well, that's exactly what it is.) And I'm not the only one interested. These products are starting to get serious attention from traditional meat processors, with agribusiness giants Tyson and Cargill investing in Memphis Meats, a clean meat start-up based in San Leandro. "It’s not a threat to us, it’s an opportunity,” Sonya McCullum Roberts, president of growth ventures at Cargill, recently told Fortune magazine.

To be clear, the clean meat that Churchill envisioned, and that companies like Memphis Meats are beginning to produce, isn’t simply an alternative to meat. It’s actual animal muscle tissue, produced without the living, conscious animal. Rather than raising chickens or pigs to slaughter and sell as cuts of meat, clean meat producers take microscopic animal cells, put them in a cultivator so they behave as they do in the body, and feed them so they that grow into muscle tissue just like the meat we eat today.

Why would we want to do as Churchill suggested and start producing real meat without animals? Well, for starters, because raising farm animals takes vast resources. To put the problem in perspective, imagine walking through the poultry aisle of your local supermarket. For each whole chicken you see, envision more than one thousand single-gallon jugs of water sitting next to it. Then imagine systematically, one by one, twisting the cap off each jug and pouring them all out. That’s about how much water it takes to bring a single chicken from shell to shelf. In other words, you can save more water by skipping one family chicken dinner than by skipping six months of showers.

Growing only the meat we want won’t require all the resources needed to produce entire animals. A 2011 study by Oxford University researcher Hanna Tuomisto estimated that clean beef production could require 99 percent less land and 96 percent less water while producing 96 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional beef production. Such early studies are admittedly imprecise, since the technologies that will make clean meat commercially viable are still under development. But most analysts believe that even large-scale production of lab-cultured meat is likely to be far more resource-efficient than traditional livestock production.

Churchill’s vision of widely-available synthetic meat isn’t yet a reality, but it’s likely a matter of years now, not decades. Meanwhile, plant-based meats are already helping many of us to wean ourselves off the factory farming of animals.

Those who worry that Churchill’s vision of meat without animals is “unnatural” may find it helpful to recall just how unsustainable, inhumane, and unnatural contemporary meat production has become. Clean meat probably won’t be competing for market share against meat from pasture-raised animals. Rather, clean meat enthusiasts seek to displace the farm animals providing the vast majority of the meat we eat today: animals that languish in their own feces, never set foot outdoors, and are forced to consume large quantities of antibiotics and other drugs. If we pause to contemplate this harsh reality, the promise of clean meat seems obvious.

Churchill had a lot on his plate when he became prime minister. Yet his predictions about the contents of our plates may have even greater relevance today, as we search for ways to reduce the harm we’re doing to the only planet we have. Clean meat may soon prove to be part of the solution.

About the Author

Paul Shapiro is the author of “Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World.” @PaulHShapiro

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.