Billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates has a solution to the impeding climate change disaster: Switch to synthetic meat.
The billionaire American business magnate, software developer, and philanthropist has a new book out, called “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.”
One of his top solutions involved synthetic meat.
“I do think all rich countries should move to 100% synthetic beef,” Gates said in an interview with MIT Technology Review, on how to cut back on methane emissions. “You can get used to the taste difference, and the claim is they’re going to make it taste even better over time. Eventually, that green premium is modest enough that you can sort of change the people or use regulation to totally shift the demand.”
Gates said he’s optimistic that plant-based beef replacements can replace meat from actual cattle without lab-grown meat taking over the market. While he is advocating for it, he gets that it may not be a 1-step single switch transition: “Saying to people, ‘You can’t have cows anymore’ — talk about a politically unpopular approach to things,” he also told MIT Technology Review.
But what really is synthetic meat?
Back in 2013, the world watched as food critics tucked into the first-ever lab-grown burger. The small pink patty, prised out of a petri dish and fried in front of the media, was proof that it was possible to grow safe and edible meat without slaughtering a single animal.
The burger was cooked by chef Richard McGeown, from Cornwall, and tasted by food critics Hanni Ruetzler and Josh Schonwald.
Upon tasting the burger, Austrian food researcher Ms Ruetzler said: “I was expecting the texture to be more soft… there is quite some intense taste; it’s close to meat, but it’s not that juicy. The consistency is perfect, but I miss salt and pepper.
“This is meat to me. It’s not falling apart.”
In January 2016, a company called Memphis Meats, (a company Bill Gates has since invested in) produced a ‘cultured meatball’ for around $1,000, and today start-ups and non-profit organisations are working on other lab-grown animal products including pork, chicken, turkey, fish, milk, egg whites, gelatin, and even leather.
Science Focussimply explains synthetic meat, also called lab-grown meat, cultured meat, in vitro meat, synthetic meat, and is made by growing muscle cells in a nutrient serum and encouraging them into muscle-like fibres. Simpler animal products, such as artificial milk or hen-free egg whites, can be created by yeast that has been genetically altered to produce the proteins found in milk or eggs, which are then extracted and blended in the right amounts.
How is synthetic meat made?
The simple answer is cells. The same way cells in your body grow to make or regenerate your body, under laboratory conditions, cells can be grown to make meat. Growing the cells that form cultured meat is not hugely different from other ‘cell culture’ methods that biologists have used to study cells since the early 1900s.
Science Focus explains the process: It starts with a few ‘satellite’ cells, which can be obtained from a small sample of muscle taken from a live animal. These are stem cells that can turn into the different cells found in muscle. Just one cell could, in theory, be used to grow an infinite amount of meat. When fed a nutrient-rich serum, the cells turn into muscle cells and proliferate, doubling in number roughly every few days.
After the cells have multiplied, they are encouraged to form strips, much like how muscle cells form fibres in living tissue. These fibres are attached to a sponge-like scaffold that floods the fibres with nutrients and mechanically stretches them, ‘exercising’ the muscle cells to increase their size and protein content. The resulting tissue can then be harvested, seasoned, cooked and consumed as boneless processed meat.
Why synthetic – how much does the meat industry contribute to climate change?
A 2013 study by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that total annual emissions from animal agriculture (production emissions plus land-use change) were about 14.5 percent of all human emissions, of which beef contributed 41 percent. That means emissions from beef production are roughly on par with those of India. Because FAO only modestly accounted for land-use-change emissions, this is a conservative estimate.
There have been contrasting studies too: A 2019 study in Agricultural Systems estimated emissions from beef production at only 3 percent of total U.S. emissions, and a 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that removing all animals from U.S. agriculture would reduce U.S. emissions by only 3 percent.
Is it viable?
Some countries, like Singapore, has given U.S. start-up Eat Just the green light to sell its lab-grown chicken meat, in what the firm says is the world’s first regulatory approval for so-called clean meat that does not come from slaughtered animals.
The meat, to be sold as nuggets, will be priced at premium chicken prices when it first launches in a restaurant in Singapore “in the very near term”, co-founder and CEO Josh Tetrick said.
Demand for alternatives to regular meat is surging due to concerns about health, animal welfare and the environment. Plant-based substitutes, popularised by the likes of Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Quorn, increasingly feature on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus.
But so-called clean or cultured meat, which is grown from animal muscle cells in a lab, is still at a nascent stage given high production costs.