A thought experiment: Let us imagine for a moment what our own descendants, 100 years from now, will find particularly odd or questionable about human behavior in the year 2020.
While there is evidently no shortage of potential items on that list, one of them might be the way people in our times sourced their meat. Would it be entirely unfair if our great-grandchildren are put off by the fact that we, their ancestors, killed approximately 75 billion captive animals every year, equal to 2,400 animals per second – mainly to get meat on the table? Or that we forced many of these animals to live short, dirty lives under in some cases torturous conditions, and often killed them in their infancy?
Might our descendants also find it slightly distasteful that we bred chicken that grew so fast that after around five weeks – just in time for their slaughter – their legs couldn’t carry them anymore? Will they perhaps have heard stories about how our sometimes very unsafe relationship to domesticated animals may have triggered pandemics or antibiotic resistance? Or, 100 years from now, will they consider it odd that so many nature reserves were once allocated as grazing land for cattle, sheep, and other animals?
Perhaps they will, and perhaps the reason will be that 100 years from now, the vast majority of meat consumed by humans will be grown in bioreactors, just as the vast majority of energy used by humans might be generated by nuclear fusion reactors. Now, as of the time of writing, there are no working nuclear fusion reactors, but scientists have shown that growing meat in bioreactors is actually feasible. This might be a big deal, because the vast majority of humans do love the taste of meat. Furthermore, meat is nutritious and contains, for instance, the perfect combination of amino acids for building muscles. Not only that; it also contains vitamin B12 and heme iron, which are essential to our nourishment, but rare in other foods than meat.
It’s no wonder, then, that we humans have been eating meat for a very long time. Our very distant ancestors, Australopithecus afarensis, probably became carnivores as early as 3.4 million years ago. Some scientists believe that our longstanding appetite for meat led to genetic selection for intelligence, since catching a large fleeing prey requires more brains than eating stationary plants. Perhaps our meat-eating habits explain our superior intelligence and everything that followed! In any case, since meat-eating has been with us for so long, there is very little reason to believe that most people will stop craving this kind of food anytime soon, or ever. Indeed, by some estimates, meat now accounts for some 30 percent of the calories consumed by the human species, and the trend is pointing up, not down. It’s a big business, too: In 2019, the meat trade turned over almost US$2 trillion in value, or approximately 2 percent of the global economy. Today, however, humanity may be on the cusp of a fundamental transformation in the way the vast majority of our meat is sourced, just as when our ancestors began to switch from hunting to farming about 12,000 years ago. That switch from hunting to farming was a revolution with massive implications. In the next few years, we might witness a new evolution where we transition from farming meat to synthesizing it.
Read more about Lars Tvede’s vision on cultured meat in the Epilogue, including thoughts on how synthetization can make our food system smart, digital, and compact and why the revolution of the meat industry will arrive in two waves.