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‘Clean meat’ could be a major revolution for the agriculture sector

Can you have your cow and eat one too? Soon you may be able to eat meat without killing animals.

I recently had the pleasure of reading a book that will hit the stands on Jan. 2, Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, by Paul Shapiro, vice-president of policy at the Humane Society of the United States.

Mr. Shapiro's book details the cutting-edge biotechnology, known as "clean meat," by which a few innovative entrepreneurs, academics and venture capitalists are producing meat without farmed animals. In one variation, a sample of a living cow's flesh can be placed in a bioreactor and the cells will replicate to produce food-grade beef to feed masses. In another approach, no animal cells are required at all. Instead, yeast or mushroom cells are reprogrammed to turn into a beverage that is identical in all ways to cow's milk, minus the milking of cows. Either way, the technology is intended to redefine the entire animal agriculture industry, resulting in meat, eggs and dairy products that are identical to the products so familiar to consumers.

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Why bother? The potential benefits are immense. As with plant-based foods, clean meat places a much smaller toll on the environment than conventional meat production, reducing freshwater consumption, land use, energy inputs and greenhouse gas production. Consider the fact that it takes about 23 calories to produce a calorie of beef (cows need to eat a lot of plants and consume other energy before becoming food). Clean-meat proponents expect their final product will require only three calories to produce a calorie of clean meat. This efficiency gain will arise in large part by eliminating the need to grow spines, brains and other disposable by-products. The end result will be a lighter load on the planet.

Additionally, clean meat eliminates the risk of food-borne illnesses such as E. coli and salmonella, since fecal contaminants and pathogens that go hand-in-hand with meat from slaughtered animals are absent from the clean-meat production process. And clean meat promises to help address looming threats of antibiotic resistance. Currently, farmed animals consume the majority of the annual available supply of antibiotics (this occurs in part to prevent and treat the diseases that arise from the crowded housing environments in which farmed animals are raised, but also because antibiotics accelerate the rate of animals' weight gain, padding the farmers' bottom line).

A hidden benefit of clean meat is that the production process can substitute healthy fats – such as the omega-3s found in flax seed and algae – in place of the saturated animal fats that are associated with rampant cardiovascular disease among meat eaters.

Furthermore, clean meat poses clear benefits for our collective conscience. Globally, many tens of billions of birds, mammals and sea creatures are killed every year to produce food, and along the way they suffer treatment that would be illegal if applied to cats or dogs. Most of us strive not to dwell on the unpleasant details of conventional meat production. A recent study by agricultural economist Jayson Lusk of Purdue University and his colleagues at Oklahoma State University, published in the journal Animal Welfare, found people are "willfully ignorant" about the way animals are slaughtered. One-third of the study participants chose to stare at a blank computer screen instead of looking at a photo of the stark conditions under which pregnant hogs live on a typical farm. Imagine how great it would be to avoid that heavy sense of guilt, not by looking away, but rather by ensuring the (clean) meat we eat doesn't necessitate any animals being inhumanely raised and slaughtered.

Surely changes of this magnitude will take a toll on those who rely on the animal agriculture industry for income. Workers in slaughterhouses and concentrated animal-feeding operations will likely have to endure unemployment in the short run. But the loss of these brutal jobs, which come with high accident rates and attendant worker turnover, is not grounds for delaying progress. With technological advancement will emerge new opportunities. Just as Henry Ford's innovations rendered horse-drawn carriage coachmen unemployed, the widespread proliferation of automobiles created a new economic sector with jobs for factory workers, drivers and mechanics, among others.

Venture capitalists have already cottoned on to the investment opportunities afforded by clean meat, with early funders including Li Ka-shing, Bill Gates and Richard Branson. Even the world's largest conventional meat-production company, Tyson, has announced plans to invest in clean meat.

Mr. Shapiro, who will be discussing Clean Meat at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management on Jan. 5, had the pleasure of tasting clean meat at a time when fewer people had done so than have travelled into space. Unlike your chances of travelling to the moon or Mars in your lifetime, the odds of finding clean meat on your plate in the next five or 10 years are astronomically high.

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Lisa Kramer is a Professor of Finance at the University of Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter at @LisaKramer.

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