Lab-Based Food for World Hunger

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As of 2018, one out of nine people were hungry. By 2030, the world is set to see at least a 20% increase in the world population simply meaning that there will be that many more mouths to feed in not more than 10 odd years from now. A little more thought on the matter would shed light on various other consequences of this increase in world population. More mass capitalization means that more and more wealthy people in the world will grow wealthier still and as their worth grows, so does the amount of meat in their diet. By 2050, the world will demand 50% more meat than it does now, as predicted by FAO. If the number of livestock remains the same, all the world’s forests would have to be converted into agricultural land to feed and rear this livestock. This would not only result in an insane amount of greenhouse gases, carbon emissions, and thousands and thousands of liters of water but also other devastating impacts on the environment.

Solution? Going vegetarian or vegan is not a feasible option as this is a matter of preference and meat-eaters are not very likely to gravitate towards such a solution. The obvious solution then, at least according to lab-based food enthusiasts, producers and investors, is a way to produce more meat out of the livestock present in the world right now. While lab-grown meat and other foods seem like the answer to environmentalists’ prayers worldwide, will it also come through as a key player in solving world hunger?

What is lab-grown meat and why is it such a wonder to behold? Well for one, the comparison between conventionally produced meat versus lab-grown meat is stark. Compared to conventionally produced meat, meat that is grown in the lab takes up 99% lower land, emits 80-95% lower greenhouse gas, and uses 80-90% less water. What’s more, where normal meat requires 4 to 10kgs of feed for the livestock, lab-grown meat can work with only 2kgs, increasing efficiency.

Strictly speaking environmentally, as things stand right now if lab-grown meat could cover even half of the world’s demands for meat, the world would gain back 50% of its forest cover and decrease greenhouse emissions by half. As of now, conventional meat production uses almost one-third of the global land area and emits one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions. When one calculates, reduced land use owing to lab-produced meat can be used for wildlife conservation and growing new forests, leading to all sorts of wonderful opportunities for the environment.
There’s more – less poaching for meat, more humanity for animals who would otherwise spend a harsh life in livestock farms, and a healthier approach to eating meat- all are advantages of lab-based food to look forward to. And interestingly, all these advantages lead to the solution of world hunger- be it through an increase in forest cover or through the increase in crops. Where then, is the conflict? The answer might not be so obvious. To be able to make meat out of animal muscle or cells is a remarkable feat, but laudable as it is, for people to automatically assume that this would solve the issue of world hunger is optimistic at best.

It is safe to say that if the world is able to produce cultured meat commercially and cheaply enough, it can save livestock and increase the amount of food in the world, but that does not automatically mean that it can also solve world hunger. Why are we so skeptical? The answer to this question is glaringly obvious – there is already enough food in the world. The world really does not need more meat production to feed all the hungry mouths. Nor, for that matter does it need more crops or grain. Difficult to believe as it may be, the world actually has enough food for everybody. What it needs is income equality and a better trickle-down effect from the uber-rich to the ultra-poor so that the existing food reaches everyone. According to most experts, while green meat manufacturing may help to direct attention towards the issue of world hunger, it is not going to wipe it off.

About 12.5% of the world’s population can be considered “hungry” but most of the actual hunger experienced by people around the world is really not due to the world not having enough food to feed them. It has also nothing to do with the fact that cattle or livestock raising has taken away x amount of agricultural land. It simply means that people do not have the wherewithal or resources to make food – lab-based or otherwise. How food is made or produced does not really make or break the basic concept of hunger in any way.

Experts also argue that even if this ultra-expensive method of creating meat ever reaches commercial levels of production and cost, all that will come out of it is that the middle-income band of people, who can already afford food, will increase their intake of meat as it becomes more affordable for them. Simply put, making animal protein in a cheaper or in a more unconventional manner will not ameliorate world hunger. Emelie Peine, an assistant professor of international economics at the University of Puget Sound says,

“I think the question is not whether there is enough meat in the world and whether it is affordable, but rather, how are we using our agricultural resources, who benefits, and at what cost to our health and our environment?”

Joshua Muldavin, a professor of human geography at Sarah Lawrence College thinks that a needless connection is being made between big issues like world hunger and this kind of manufacturing technology because the ones behind it need to make their work relevant and these associations legitimize their technology. Without taking anything away from the mind-blowing feat that this is, he feels that this is a “disservice” to those people who are working on issues like world hunger and the disbursement of food throughout the globe in more practical ways.

“This just reinforces the notion that hunger is all about abundance,”

he says.

If world hunger is to be curbed by 2030, going by the popular hashtag #ZeroHunger2030, more work needs to be done towards setting up unbreakable social networks and food delivery systems to those places in the world that regularly experience food insecurity. It will require governments and world leaders to come together to mobilize forces to make food accessible everywhere. It is a heavy mantle to wear and to shift the entire onus of it to a petri dish or two is unrealistic.

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