The plant doctor’s view on cultivated meat
Population growth and rapid economic development are increasing the demand for meat, especially in low and middle-income countries. Annual meat production is projected to increase from 218 million tonnes in 1997-1999 to 376 million tonnes by 2030. The environmental impact of meat products such as pollution through fossil fuel usage, animal methane, effluent waste, and water and land consumption has also become alarming. How can we tackle food security with sustainable measures? Can cultivated meat provide an alternative protein that is more environmentally friendly? I got a chance to chat with Professor Paul Teng, Dean and Managing Director of National Institute of Education International from Singapore, who is also Adjunct Senior Fellow in the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies of the Nanyang Technological University Singapore.
Spent most of his career in the field of agriculture, Professor Teng was nicknamed as “the Plant Doctor” for his extensive research in plant diseases with a network of national program scientists. More recently, he has devoted his time to researching science communication and science entrepreneurship. Prof Teng has also served on many national and international committees. I consider him to be one of the best people to give me an overall view on the question of how to best balance food security with the environment and what role can cultivated meat play in this.
“The Singapore Food Story (SFS) is one of the exciting developments of any country worldwide. It was launched by the Singapore government last year and backed by US$144 million dollars initially for food-related research and development programmes”. Teng could not hide his excitement about SFS. Currently 90% of the food in Singapore is imported from over 170 countries around the world. While Singapore cannot expect to be fully self-sufficient, the authorities there aim to supply 30% of the country’s nutrition needs, through the Singapore Food Story R&D Program. “This movement will strengthen Singapore’s food security and position Singapore as a leader in science and technology in the areas of sustainable urban food production, bio-based protein production – this is where cultured meat comes in, and food safety science. ” With research grants setting up for alternative protein and encouraging start-up companies, cultivated meat has a strategic position in Singapore’s plan of future food security.
Talking about the future of cultured meat, or “clean meat,” Teng believed he still needs to see more evidence to think that cultured meat will be competitive with the traditional meat. “I am keeping an open mind.” According to Teng, the biggest obstacle to mass-market cultured meat is the cost, and the second biggest is cultural acceptance. “Cultural acceptance is essential when discussing animal protein. I feel it is something that has been undervalued and not accessed enough. Right now, there is a niche market for clean meat in terms of people who are very concerned about the environment and animal cruelty”.
Is clean meat more sustainable than traditional meat? Teng is very concerned about the accuracy of that claim. “I have seen so little data to allow me to have a good evaluation of a life cycle of clean meat. From what I know, it seems to be quite energy intensive”. With such an open mind, Teng said he would love to see cultivated meat scaled up and scaled out because it would be important to help us to meet the demand of protein without having to grow live animals.
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