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Eating more, spending less: the fourth agricultural revolution V

Growing a burgher in six week. Stem cells are taken from a cow and grown in a lab creating muscle tissue in six weeks. This tissue is coloured, mixed with fat and shaped into a burgher ready for cooking. Credit: Mosa Meat
  • Meat factories

The world first hamburger produced in a lab in 2013 cost 330,000$ US. By the end of 2018 the price for a lab produced hamburger is expected to reach supermarkets and be within 30% of the price of a “normal” hamburger. A 100,000 price decrease in just 6 years!

Why would we want to lab produce hamburger, and more generally meat and fish fillet? The basic reason is the environmental cost of livestock and the low efficiency of meat versus other type of food. Meat industry (the whole value chain) account to 18% of greenhouse gas production (and the gas been produced is methane and nitrous oxide that are 23 and 300 times worse than CO2 in their effect on climate); it is using a significant portion of arable land, 26% in grazing and a further 30% in producing food for them, with lower energy efficiency (to produce 1 kilocalorie of meat protein we use 25 kilocalories of fossil fuel -equivalent- whilst producing 1 kilocalorie of corn requires 2.2 kilocalories of fossil fuel -equivalent).

Trends in meat consumption over time (kg/per capita/per year) – by region. Credit: WHO

Considering the above data and the fact that meat consumption will be increasing in the coming decade, as more people will inhabit our planet and more will increase meat consumption (see chart) it is no wonder the importance of finding ways to create artificial meat.

The challenge is to produce artificial meat, cow’s, pork, poultry and fish fillets in volumes at a fraction of today’s cost and using a fraction of resources. The idea started many years ago -Winston Churchill is credited of saying in 1932: why should we grow a whole chicken to eat just the breast?- and there are now labs results and a few companies are planning to go to market in the coming years.

Memphis Meats received back up from Bill Gates and Richard Branson, SuperMeat advertise themselves as eco-friendly and animal-friendly, claiming to use fewer resources than livestock production.

Until 3 years ago the expectation was to have artificial meat in mass production by 2035, now the most recent predictions are pointing to a take over of artificial meat as soon as 2021. Clearly this does not mean that we are going to dump livestock and connected industry, just that artificial meat will have a way to market. In the long run it will create a disruption, as already foreseen by the Imperial College Foresight study that points at Cultured Meat as something happening today (although the disruption will happen in some twenty years time).

Notice that if -likely- and when -2040- that disruption will occur we will see a tremendous impact on current economy. Keep in mind that some 50% of arable land is used today in conjunction with livestock and that will no longer be needed! Clearly such a shift might counteract the trend towards vertical agriculture, making more land available and will probably give further impulse to the adoption of swarms of robo-farmers.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.