By Ethan Chung, MEng ’23 (BioE)This op-ed is recognized as the Best Overall Op-ed and awarded the Alumni Award in the annual Berkeley MEng op-ed contest and part of a series from E295: Communications for Engineering Leaders. In this course, Master of Engineering students were challenged to communicate a topic they found interesting to a broad audience of technical and non-technical readers. As an opinion piece, the views shared here are neither an expression of nor endorsed by UC Berkeley or the Fung Institute. It’s lunchtime and you are debating on what to order with your favorite food delivery app. While scrolling through local restaurants, you find one called “GOOD Meat.” At first glance, they appear to serve chicken dishes in a variety of culinary styles you find appealing. Then upon further browsing, you find a surprising note in their description that “no animals were harmed to make this meal, all meat is cell-cultured.” To many here in the West, this scenario plays out like a scene from a science fiction show, but for people in Singapore, cell-based meat companies like GOOD Meat are already on the cusp of the future of protein production and have already made this anecdote a reality. By 2050, experts from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization predicted that the world would need to produce twice as much protein as it did in 2019 to feed humanity’s ever-growing and increasingly wealthy population (Godfray et al. 2019). Unfortunately, while our demand for protein will double, it is hard to imagine our traditional process for sourcing protein: large-scale animal husbandry, being able to scale at such a rate. After all, while our cities and individual income may expand over time, the number of pastures and fishing spots in our oceans will not. Therefore, in order to meet this growing demand for protein in a sustainable and ethical manner, we can look towards the emerging field of cell-based meat cultivation as a solution.
“Given how this alternate meat source can achieve a lower environmental impact, avoid moral ambiguity, and maintain a robust efficacy for health safety and quality control, we should go one step further and establish these kinds of methods as the new standard for how we source our protein.”Over the years, countless ecological impact studies have thoroughly documented the direct link between conventional animal-based meat cultivation and greenhouse gas emissions, incredible water use, and land degradation (Rubio et al. 2020). These environmental costs can be primarily attributed to the fact that all land-based livestock need feed (grass, hay, etc.) to survive, which requires a lot of additional land and water (Godfray et al. 2019). Cell-based meat manufacturing on the other hand side-steps this feedstock requirement in its entirety, exponentially decreasing its overall environmental impact on land use, eutrophication, and greenhouse gas emission as shown in the graph on the right (Rubio et al. 2020). Looking at this same visual, one can also see cell-based meat production’s one environmental drawback: its energy intensity. While noticeable, it is important to remember that this industry is less than a decade old, and engineers are currently working to decrease the energy it takes to maintain cell cultures. Therefore, given time (especially within the next two decades) and the right engineers, this environmental caveat will soon become negligible. Environmental costs are not the only prices we have to pay to consume meat. Whether we like it or not, every time we consume traditionally produced meat, an animal has to be slaughtered. While animal welfare is not as tangible as a measurement as ecological impact, it raises a series of difficult questions people who eat meat have to consider. Questions such as: What animals are morally acceptable to kill? What aspects contribute to ethical livestock rearing? Can animal agriculture even be considered ethical? These concerns are a rising priority for younger generations of high-income countries and have no clear-cut solutions (Ong et al. 2020). However, similar to the sustainability problems provided earlier, cell-based meats avoid these ethical dilemmas altogether. As it requires zero animals losing their lives over our desire for protein.
“Especially considering that cell lines and cultures can be cultivated without killing their animal host.”Nonetheless, the most important reason for steering towards cell-based alternatives is their positive impact on human health. As H1N1 flu, Avian Influenza, and COVID-19 have taught us, species-jumping diseases that originate from unsanitary livestock conditions can be detrimental to the welfare of all humans. Furthermore, considering that many of these zoonotic pandemic-level diseases proliferated within just the last two decades demonstrates how dangerous continuing down the path of unchecked large-scale animal agricultural production would be (Santo et al. 2020).
“Conversely, current cell-based meat cultivation methods have more in common with pharmaceutical development rather than a slaughterhouse.”In order for the desired protein cells to grow they must be isolated from external bacteria and other threatening microorganisms that can compete for the cell’s nutrient media. Therefore intense sterile parameters within bioreactors and clean rooms are required to create successful meat products. These same conditions and practices help isolate possible outbreaks from diseases like salmonella before they reach the general public as batches of protein cells are already quarantined in separate single-use bioreactors and can be easily disposed of if contaminated. The future is clear. If we want to sustainably provide humanity’s later generations with the nutritional value they will need over the coming few decades, switching to favor alternative protein sources is the best course of action. Having personally spent a few years designing cell-based meat production facilities as a process engineer, I know firsthand that the time for both engineers and investors to dedicate their knowledge and resources to this effort is now. The need to decrease our environmental impact, the desire to have guilt-free meat, and the value of protecting the general public from health hazards are already addressed with this young growing field. With time, the cell-based meat industry will reach its full potential and yield benefits too large and too attractive to ignore, and with more support, that time can come sooner rather than later. References Godfray, Charles J., et al. “White Paper Meat: The Future Series Alternative Proteins.” Weforum.org, World Economic Forum, Jan. 2019, https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_White_Paper_Alternative_Proteins.pdf. Ong, Shujian, et al. “Cell-Based Meat: Current Ambiguities with Nomenclature.” Trends in Food Science & Technology, Elsevier, 20 Feb. 2020, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0924224419308131. Rubio, Natalie R., et al. “Plant-Based and Cell-Based Approaches to Meat Production.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 8 Dec. 2020, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-20061-y. Santo, Raychel E., et al. “Considering Plant-Based Meat Substitutes and Cell-Based Meats: A Public Health and Food Systems Perspective.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 31 Aug. 2020, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsufs.2020.00134/full?utm_source= F-AAE%26utm_medium. Connect with Ethan. Edited by Mary Tran.
Op-ed: The sustainable future of protein is in the cell lab, not the farm was originally published in Berkeley Master of Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.