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Cultured meat needs a lot more government backing – for all our sakes

Lab-grown meat could change the world for the better, but relying on the free market to develop it is a recipe for disaster. Governments must step up Environment | Leader 19 February 2020 Cristina Pedrazzini/SPL/Getty ImagesAS PEOPLE get richer, they tend to eat more meat. Global meat consumption has roughly doubled over the past 30…

Lab-grown meat could change the world for the better, but relying on the free market to develop it is a recipe for disaster. Governments must step up



Environment


| Leader

19 February 2020

plastic cow in Petri dish

Cristina Pedrazzini/SPL/Getty Images

AS PEOPLE get richer, they tend to eat more meat. Global meat consumption has roughly doubled over the past 30 years and is forecast to double again over the next 30. Satisfying demand without trashing the environment and crashing the climate will be a challenge. According to the World Economic Forum, doing so through conventional agriculture will be impossible.

Another type of agriculture is on the way that could fill stomachs without killing the planet – or anything, for that matter. Cellular agriculture, or cultured meat, is almost oven-ready. The first commercial products could be plated up next year. The starter will be seafood: shrimp, crab, lobster, salmon and tuna. But the technology is basically the same and cultured shrimp should pave the way for burgers and nuggets.

Consumer squeamishness may still be a problem and some claims about cultured meat’s reduced environmental impact may be overblown (see “Lab-grown meat will be on your plate soon. It won’t be what you expect”. However, it could be a game-changer, shrinking livestock farming’s footprint, stemming the tide of antibiotic resistance, improving animal welfare and solving looming food security issues. Even lab-made shrimp would be an improvement, as aquaculture has its own sustainability problems.

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“Venture capital has a poor record of supporting truly original innovation – just look at any smartphone”

So why are governments paying cultured meat so little attention? While they continue to pour money into university research on conventional agriculture, only around $150 million has been invested in developing cultured meat up to now, all from the private sector or philanthropy. That is chicken feed for a technology that could change the world for the better.

We can’t rely on the free market to sort this out alone. Venture capital has a poor track record at supporting truly original innovation. Just look at that icon of modern consumer capitalism, the smartphone: from the internet to GPS, touchscreen displays and even the voice-activated assistant Siri, pretty much all its key technologies initially received state cash.

Governments should ignore the bleating of meat industry lobbyists. It is time to put our money where our mouths need to be.

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