For the first time in human history, we might not need animals for food
When we look back on this period of history, will we remember it as a new dawn of that unfettered imagination first shown when animals were harnessed for food 10,000 years ago?
Humanity has been farming animals since the dawn of agriculture when, somewhere along the fertile banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the first goats and sheep were corralled, bred and slaughtered for meat.
This was Mesopotamia, now Iraq, way back in the Stone Age, where a rich supply of protein from those early farmed animals nourished the very cradle of civilisation. It enabled hunter-gatherers to settle in communities, creating craftsmen and priests, soldiers and scribes; who in turn invented the wheel, the chariot and the ox-drawn plough.[i]
Thus, the business of farming animals for meat emerged into a big wide world of few people and near-untapped resources.
In Mesopotamia’s Neolithic times, Homo Sapiens numbered but one million. Now, we live in a crowded world with shrinking resources and impending climate change. There are 7 billion of us, soon to be ten.
From those distant days of Mesopotamia, agriculture has expanded to occupy half the usable land surface of the planet.
Things have changed beyond all recognition
Yet, one thing has barely changed since those times of the Stone Age: that animals are corralled, bred and slaughtered for meat.
Where things have changed, it’s not been for the better.
Take factory farming and the widespread adoption of cages, crates and confinement. Pigs in crates, unable to turn round and made to face the wall. Cattle confined and fed grain instead of grass. Chickens packed so tightly, they’ll have more room in the oven. That’s how the majority of farm animals worldwide are reared today, including in the UK, Europe and America.
It’s a cruel and wasteful process, shrouded in mythology; somehow seen as an ‘efficient’ way to produce protein. It isn’t.
Factory farmed animals eat vast quantities of grain, wasting the vast majority of its food value in terms of calories and protein, in conversion to meat. In this way, we wastefully use enough crops to feed an extra 4 billion people. In other words, without factory farming, we could feed the world with less farming, not more.
And then there’s the myth that the only way to get the ‘right’ protein is by eating meat and other livestock products.
The truth is that today the majority of humanity’s protein comes from plants. Despite what we believe, meat provides just 18 per cent of our protein worldwide; dairy provides but a tenth.[ii]
Yet, to produce what amounts to little more than a quarter of humanity’s protein, we use nearly 80 per cent of the world’s farmland to rear livestock.
There’s little room for growth in livestock farming. In land-use terms, expanding livestock isn’t really an option, unless we want to take down remaining forests, the lungs of the Earth.
And climate scientists warn that if, by the middle of the century, we carry on eating meat like we are, then our food alone could trigger catastrophic climate change.
All in all, it seems that meat has reached its sell-by date.
So what can we do?
It’s time for a new and better paradigm between food, technology and nature. An approach whereby we tap into nature’s knowledge through bio-mimetic design to secure the future of food.
Food companies are starting to see the writing on the wall; making plant-based burgers that bleed; and seeing protein as something more than just meat from animals.
In the United States, that denizen of super-size-me portions of protein, one third of Americans are already giving up meat on a regular basis, a proportion that is growing rapidly.
This eye-catching growth is attracting the attention of meat manufacturers, eager not to miss out on protein’s new dawn.
Take Tyson, the world’s second biggest meat company; investing $150 million in alternative proteins, including the plant-based Beyond Meat burger, tasted for the first time in London recently by Compassion’s wonderful patron, Joanna Lumley.
Take Cargill, another of the world’s largest meat manufacturers, who’ve now changed the name of their ‘Meat’ department to ‘Protein’, in recognition that the future lies elsewhere.
Cargill has joined billionaires like Bill Gates and Richard Branson, in investing in ‘clean meat’ grown from stem-cells and with only a fraction of the land, water and climate impact associated with animals being corralled, bred and slaughtered for meat.
Whether for reasons of business, sustainability or animal welfare, for tenderloin, sirloin or shank from an animal, the game is up.
Branson believes that, 30 years from now, “we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.”[iii]
Advances in synthetic technology are now taking advantage of bio-mimetic knowledge to replicate proteins, something which in previous decades, we failed to do because of the complexity of proteins.
We can already produce cow’s milk without needing the actual cow. We can produce egg white from cell cultures. We can produce cheese from synthetically-produced ‘real’ cow’s milk with zero animal involvement. And the prospect of meat from stem-cells, produced in something like a ‘brewery’, could make the business of slaughtering animals altogether a thing of the past.
As production of proteins from these new technologies takes off and prices plummet, it will strip away any remaining market for ‘cheap’ meat, milk and eggs from animals on factory farms.
Like the wheel made from crude wooden slabs, or the chariot, or the ox-drawn plough, meat from an animal could soon be a thing of the past. The way we see protein is about to evolve.
After 10,000 years of doing things the same way, society’s love affair with steak or cheese from an animal looks set to be over.
Bring it on.
18th January 2018
An adapted version of this opinion article first appeared in The Telegraph on 4th January 2018.
It coincided with my speech at the Oxford Union debate on the same day, where I joined Guardian journalist, George Monbiot, by seconding the motion, “This house believes that by 2100, meat-eating will be a thing of the past.”
The motion was opposed by Welsh hill farmer, Gareth Wyn Jones, and Norfolk dairy farmer, Emily Norton.
The debate was attended by 400 delegates from the annual agricultural establishment event, the Oxford Farming Conference.
The full debate can be watched here (my 10-minute speech begins at 49 minutes and 22 seconds).
The Farmer’s Guardian’s view of the outcome of the debate can be read here.
You can also read my recent review of a newly released book on the subject of bio-mimetic technologies: Clean Meat: How growing meat without animals will revolutionise dinner and the world, by Paul Shapiro (Gallery Books, 2018).
[i] https://www.ancienthistorylists.com/mesopotamia-history/top-11-inventions-and-discoveries-of-mesopotamia/#1_Agriculture_and_Irrigation; https://www.timemaps.com/civilizations/ancient-mesopotamia/; https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/a-salute-to-the-wheel-31805121/
[ii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5532560/; http://www.riddet.ac.nz/sites/default/files/content/2013%20Protein%20supply%20Mike%20Boland.pdf