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Cultured chicken development: good news in the fight against climate change

There is good news in the fight against climate change as cultured chicken is served at Singapore restaurant.

Article updated: 23 December 2020 1:00pm Author: Michael Baxter

It being nearly Christmas an’ all, and it being a pretty bad year, all in all, I thought I would bring you some good news today. It concerns the news that cultured chicken was served at a restaurant in Singapore.

I am going to tell you something that might seem contradictory. I am simultaneously extremely pessimistic and optimistic about climate change. I am pessimistic because I think we are underestimating the downside. For many years in this column, I’ve warned of the danger that a modest level of global warming might lead to the thawing of the permafrost in parts of the tundra in northern Russia and Canada, releasing methane into the atmosphere, which in turn will accelerate global warming, melting even more permafrost, creating a very nasty positive feedback loop.  

Alas, I would say that the single worst piece of news this year has been the development that the northern polar region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. 

I read somewhere that 2020 has not been a good year. Apparently, there was some kind of virus. Well, I don’t think I can tell you anything about that that you don’t already know, but I can tell you about a much more severe disease-related threat: superbugs. Mainly because of their overuse in livestock farming, antibiotics are losing their effectiveness. The discovery of penicillin is estimated to have saved between 80 million and 200 million lives. If antibiotics lose effectiveness, the human death doll could be a hundred times than that caused by Covid. 

So that’s two reasons to be glum: climate change and antibiotics losing their effectiveness.

And yet I promised to give you good news. Well, here it goes.

A company called East Just Inc has teamed up with a restaurant in Singapore called 1880. Eat Just Inc is in the cultured meat business: its website, describes what it does pretty well.

The 1880 restaurant has served cultured chicken, that’s chicken grown from stem cells, at its restaurant, costing 23 Singapore dollars. That works out at around US$17 (about £13).

Why is this such a big deal? Well, there is more than one reason. From a climate change point of view, cultured meat's real benefit is that it requires a fraction of the amount of land necessary to rear animals. Roughly 71 per cent of all land is habitable, fifty per cent of habitable land is used for agriculture, and 77 per cent of agriculture land is used for livestock. 

Just imagine if meat was grown from stem cells, without the need to rear and then slaughter animals. We would require less land and less water. The land that is saved could partly be used for planting trees, helping to reverse climate change. The water saved could perhaps be used to irrigate infertile areas, creating more plant life, helping to reverse climate change. Furthermore, cultured meat doesn’t require antibiotics.

For me, the logic of cultured meat is compelling. Cows, sheep, pigs and chickens are like meat processing factories — they turn grass and other feed into meat. And it isn’t very efficient. If you could bypass all the grazing, all the waiting for animals to mature, would that not be more efficient, let alone kinder on animals?

There is a snag: creating cultured meat is very energy-intensive and at the moment; it is not kind on the environment.

But that is where my optimism creeps in. I think the mistake that critics make is to ignore how technology advances as we apply it. Certain products are subject to what are called learning rates — the more we make them, the better we get at doing it. Moore’s Law is an example of a learning rate. One of the earlier examples of learning rates we know of relates to how the cost of making aircraft fell with each doubling of production — this is known as Wright’s Law, named after the aeronautical engineer who described the phenomenon. 

Renewable energies and battery technologies are both falling at a cost described by a learning rate, as is genome sequencing, which is partly why scientists were able to sequence the Covid-19 genome so quickly, and indeed how we were able to identify the Covid mutation so quickly

The main reason (actually, probably the only reason) why I have doubts about nuclear energy is that it is hard to discern a learning rate — indeed the learning rate may even be negative.

The win-win

One of the implications of learning rates applied to renewable energy and batteries, and to cultured meat is that it is possible to project a time when the cost of both energy and meat is significantly less than it is now. 

An era when both energy and meat are so cheap, that government could conceivably make them free at the point of consumption, like a highly specific form of universal basic income, could beckon.

So, I think this is good news indeed. 

The catch

The catch is that we need to accelerate the speed with which the benefits of the learning rate roll out. In the early days of a new technology, it is very expensive and requires a niche, in which high prices can be applied, for it to develop. I guess that World War I accelerated the development of the aeronautical industry. For both solar and early computers, the NASA space programme was vital.

Cultured meat could be genuinely transformative technology, but for it to play a key role in the fight against climate change, it needs a boost — I suspect that means government funding as well as private funding. 

For investors I would say watch carefully. Cultured meat could change the world.

But it will be several years before we have cultured Turkey for our Christmas Dinner.

PS: In my new book: Living in the Age of the Jerk, I predicted that lab-grown meat would be competitive in price with conventional meat by 2035. 

These views are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Share Centre, its officers and employees.

Michael Baxter portrait photo
Michael Baxter

Economics Commentator

Michael is an economics, investment and technology writer, known for his entertaining style. He has previously been a full-time investor, founder of a technology company which was floated on the NASDAQ, and a director of a PR company specialising in IT.

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