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Farm News & Views - January 4, 2022

As we begin a new year, it’s a good time to look to the future to determine opportunities and threats to agricultural businesses. A series of articles in December by Dr. Harwood Schaffer and Dr. Darrel Ray at the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center and a November 4 and 11, 2021Times Magazine Article, “The cow that might feed the planet” by Aryn Baker, brought the concept of producing artificial meat into focus. According to the Good Foods Institute’s “State of the Industry Report: Cultivated Meat,” released in 2021 found that in 2020, over $366 million was raised by over 70 companies focused on developing cultivated meat inputs, services, or end products. Among those companies were the major meat packers JBS-S.A., Cargill, Tyson and Brazilian BRF S.A. one of the largest food companies in the world. Together, these companies are considering producing over 15 types of meat including beef, pork, chicken, duck, lamb, five types of fish, Kangaroo, horse, and mouse. No, the mouse isn’t for humans, but for cats.

Shaffer and Ray point out that cell-cultivated meats differ from the more familiar plant-based meat substitutes because the end product consists of cells that carry the same DNA as the animal they were taken from. To create this product, cells are extracted from a living animal, and then multiplied in nutrient filled vats. The meat cells are then separated out of the growing medium and combined with animal fat grown in separate bioreactors to make a product that the developers hope will cook and taste just like the hamburger we buy in the grocery store, but ribeye steaks are likely much further down the line.

Advocates of cultured meat contend that livestock raised for food directly contributes 5.8 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions, and up to 14.5 percent if feed production, processing, and transportation are included. They also claim that industrial agriculture, particularly beef, drives deforestation, and cows emit methane during digestion and nitrous oxide with their manure, both greenhouse gases that are from 25 to 298 times more potent than carbon dioxide. But there’s apparently no data concerning what types of waste products are produced in the cell culturing bioreactors and how those wastes will be handled.

Farmers and ranchers and associated organizations need to determine the kinds of impacts that a shift to cell-cultivated meat production might have on their industries, rather than attacking the concept of this kind of meat, while expecting that bad mouthing cultivated meats will stem the possibility of these products becoming mainstream food items. Questions that should be considered include: Will crop farmers face diminished demand for the forage and feed grains they now produce? Are there profitable alternative crops that will allow farmers to shift land and machinery resources to other crops? Another concept that farmers or livestock producers might embrace is to adopt more sustainable crop and livestock production systems that would focus on alternative crops and livestock that could be marketed more directly to consumers. Rural communities too will also need to adapt to a changing economy if cell-cultured meat become the norm, since many small towns depend on businesses that support farming and ranching, that in turn, provide jobs and tax revenues that help to keep these communities afloat.

Author C. S. Lewis wrote, “There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

Bob has been an agricultural educator and farm and ranch management consultant for over 40 years in southwest Colorado. He writes about agricultural issues from his farm near Cortez, and has helped to produce farm reports on KSJD for more than a dozen years.