Forest Futures: Where’s the Beef? Meat without Livestock Production

Meat consumption is increasing rapidly across the globe. By 2050, the demand for meat is estimated to rise by 73% and the human population is projected to reach more than 9 billion (Heffernan 2017). Meat consumption has risen most dramatically in middle-income countries like China and elsewhere in East Asia. As countries become more affluent, the demand for a diet with a heavy focus on meat and dairy increases and starch-based diets become less desirable (Godfray et al. 2018).

A whopping 30% of Earth’s land surface is dedicated to livestock production (Heffernan 2017). In 2017, the world lost one football pitch of forest every second according to satellite data compiled by Global Forest Watch. In the end, the area lost in 2017 adds up to the size of Italy (Carrington et al. 2018). In the US and elsewhere around the world a significant amount of grazing takes place on public lands. Unfortunately, if not managed well, intense grazing can destroy vegetation and disrupt natural ecosystem processes. If livestock production continues to increase, it will only put more pressure on precious public lands. Along with this, livestock production contributes greatly to climate change; it already contributes 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (Caughill 2017).

As food technology develops, there are a growing number of innovations that have the potential to make consumption more sustainable. The ‘clean meat’ industry involves animal cells being harvested in a non-intrusive manner and then multiplied carefully in what is known as a ‘culture’. The environmental implications of in vitro meat technology are enormous. Studies estimate that it could reduce the meat sector’s greenhouse gas emissions by 78-96%, water consumption by 82-96% and land use by 99% (Kreitman 2017). However, this technology is still young and at the small-scale level of single containers in laboratories. But many ‘clean meat’ startups believe the technology will advance quickly and that it will soon be affordable for mass consumption (Caughill 2017).

This controversial technology is facing pushback. There is a lot of back and forth surrounding whether or not lab-grown meat should be labeled and considered authentic meat. A lot of this opposition stems from the cattle industry, who sees this technological development as a market threat. They want to limit the terms ‘beef’ and ‘meat’ exclusively to products that have been born, raised, and slaughtered in a traditional manner (Haridy 2018). The state of Missouri has already made the clear distinction that anything labeled ‘meat’ must have died from slaughter. Not surprisingly, the lab-grown sector is fighting back and has formed a lobby group called the Cellular Agriculture Society that promotes a ‘post-animal bio economy’ (Haridy 2018).

In addition to meat, companies producing plant-based alternatives are attempting to bring a meaty flavor to their products, including one that was recently recognized by the FDA as safe. The critical ingredient that gives it the meaty taste and texture is the heme molecule which carries oxygen through our bloodstreams. Conveniently for food scientists, the identical heme molecule can be found in the root nodules of soy plants. The production of plant-based meat alternatives involves 75% less water, 87% less greenhouse gases, and 95% less land than traditional beef burgers according to one of the manufacturers. However, there are still unanswered questions and controversy about the genetic engineering and the risk of allergens with the plant-based meat alternatives.

Technology, as always, is imbued with social and ethical controversies. There is a lot at stake moving forward with ‘clean meat’ and plant-based alternatives; it matters who dominates its development and how it’s marketed to the mainstream. Broadly, technology is evolving rapidly and there are many benefits. But there is also always the possibility of unforeseen consequences. Furthermore, there’s a possibility the increase in lab produced food could result in society further disassociating from nature and losing sight of the connection between the environment and food production. Regardless, lab-grown meat and plant-based alternatives have the capability to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions as well as the strain on public lands. — Mary Lovelace, USFS Intern


Carrington, D., N. Kommenda, P. Gutierrez and C. Levett. 2018. One football pitch of forest lost every second in 2017, data revels. The Guardian.

Caughill, P. 2017. Meat is transforming our future. Futurism.

Godfray, H.C., P. Aveyard, T. Garnett, J.W. Hall, T.J. Key, J. Lorimer, R.T. Pierrehumbert, P. Scarborough, M. Springmann and S.A. Jebb. 2018. Meat consumption, health, and the environment. Science. 361: 1-8.

Haridy, R. 2018. Lab-grown meat not meat according to state of Missouri. New Atlas.

Heffernan, O. 2017. Sustainability: a meaty issue. Nature: International Journal of Science. 544: 18-20.

Kreitman, N. 2017. Meat without slaughter: what are the steps to scale. Futures Centre.

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