15 February 2021

What’s the beef with food imports?

By Catherine McBride

Two publications came to my attention last week: one published in CapX where Jim Mellon explained why he has invested in laboratory produced meat and the other, a twitter thread by the BBC’s Northern Ireland Economics Editor, about NI’s Alliance Party proposing that the UK: ‘align with EU SPS rules, and not diverge, and update its own legislation in line with any changes in the EU’s acquis in order to speed up agricultural trade at the Irish border. The only good thing about the latter idea is that it would most likely scupper the former but I think that there is a better solution for both issues – trade.

Trade can supply the UK with more affordable meat without resorting to a laboratory, yet this will only be possible if the UK is outside the EU’s restrictive Sanitary and Phyto Sanitary (SPS) regulations. Yes, this might slow down agricultural imports from Ireland but why are we buying food from Ireland at all? There are many alternative suppliers and it is time that the UK took its shopping trolley to another market.

While I agree with Mellon that there are some intensive farming practices that need to be overhauled, this is already happening through innovation and doesn’t require throwing the baby out with the bath water, and growing meat in a petri dish.

However his claims that pandemics such as Covid-19, Spanish Flu, and SARS ‘probably arose due to agricultural malpractice’ are unfounded. Covid-19 was certainly not caused by overcrowded animal husbandry – many of the meats sold in the Wuhan markets are not commercially farmed: pangolin, peacock and civet for example. Nor was the Spanish Flu, which broke out in 1919 when very little agriculture was intensive – in fact by today’s standards almost all agriculture in 1919 would be considered organic. However, intensive animal farming probably did cause the outbreak of Swine Fever in China in 2019, causing the death of many pigs and pushing up the price of pork internationally.

Supporters of lab meat claim that it is preferable to intensive indoor meat production because the animals ‘never see the sun’. While ‘never seeing the sun’ is true of over 90% of chickens produced in the UK and about 60% of the pigs, if UK consumers were genuinely worried about in-door meat production, then they already have the option to buy Free Range or Organic chicken and pork – but few do. So I will be surprised if consumers rush to buy laboratory grown meat in order to reduce this apparent animal ‘cruelty’.

What lab meat promoters fail to mention is that intensive chicken production has lowered the price of a 2kg chicken from approximately 4.5% of the average weekly wage in 1971, to less than 1% of the average weekly wage by 2020. It is unlikely that laboratory grown chicken-like ‘meat’ will be much cheaper, nor is there evidence that UK consumers believe that chicken or pork is too expensive now and that “something should be done about it”.

But the assertion that we need lab produced meat because animal agriculture is playing a big role in the environmental crisis, is being turned on its head. There are new systems of pastoral land management being used in Australia that concentrate on increasing organic matter in soil, while using cover crops to reduce evaporation, increasing carbon sequestration and the moisture content of the treated soils. These techniques increase measurable carbon sequestration, so much so, that last week Microsoft bought half a million dollars’ worth of carbon credits from a New South Wales cattle farm to offset their carbon emissions. This means that rather than contributing to the world’s carbon emissions cattle farms can be used to reduce them.

Supporters of Lab meat are promoting it as the ecologically alternative to real meat. However many of their claims: for example that it requires 15,000 litres of water to produce one kilo of beef, are misleading. According to beefcentral.com the original report only claimed 155 litres per kilo for the animal, while the other 14,845 litres was for the rainfall needed to produce the grass and grain. But rain water also feeds the soil, the biosphere and goes back into the water cycle. So the water is not lost, or even used up. The grass absorbs carbon dioxide as it grows, and the cattle’s digestive system recycles the grass to improve the organic matter in the soil.

It would also be a mistake to believe that lab grown meat is being produced without using water, and if it is to exactly resemble real meat, then it will contain similar amounts of water as animal muscle. Although lab meat will save water by not producing the skin, organs, or bones, these secondary products also have a commercial use so are not wasted resources.

Investors in laboratory grown meat assume developing nations will adopt a western diet in the future and claim that ‘The average American eats 21,000 entire animals in their lifetime’, so when China and India become rich enough to demand a similar level of animal protein there will not be enough to satisfy the demand. However, this extrapolation is not valid. While many developing nations are adopting some elements of Western diets, many consumers in developed nations regularly eat Chinese, Japanese, Pakistani, Indian and Middle Eastern food, not to mention pasta and pizza, so total meat consumption may not necessarily increase.

And of course even the wealthiest Hindu vegetarian is not going to eat even one entire animal in their life time, let alone 21,000. However, this number doesn’t bear scrutiny as eating 21,000 steers, weighing about 300 kg, in an average US lifetime of 79 years, would require the consumption of 210 kg of beef a day. Someone could possibly eat 21,000 chickens in their lifetime but, if an average chicken weighs 2 kg, this would still be equal to eating 1.5kg of chicken every day from birth, also very unlikely.

Although, the Singapore government has approved a laboratory produced ‘chicken nugget’, Singapore is the third most densely populated country on earth with over 8000 people per Km Sq and almost no farming land. So it is not surprising that Singapore would be interested in lab grown meat. Apparently Israel is developing lab grown meat as well – but Israel has a population density of 394 people per Km Sq and an average annual rainfall of only 22.26mm.

The UK has a lower population density than either Singapore or Israel, at 281 people per Km Sq, fertile soil and plenty of rain, averaging 98.68mm annually. So although UK universities may be keen to develop these products, there seems to be little reason for the UK Government to get involved in this industry. If UK farm production is too expensive, then there are numerous countries that could provide the UK with field grown meat for a lower price without resorting to lab grown products. Provided of course, that the UK doesn’t follow the Alliance Party’s advice and adopt the EU’s SPS regulations.

Investors are enthusiastic about this sector because ‘it ticks all the boxes for today’s zeitgeist’. Unfortunately, this is true – ESG funds and peer group virtue signalling, will ensure that there are unlimited funds being invested in petri dish meat regardless of whether there is any real ecological advantage in its development. However on the positive side, ESG fund investment should alleviate any pressure on the Government to subsidise this industry’s development.

Rather than foster a domestic cellular agriculture industry, it would be a better if the UK used its ability to set its own food regulations to increase its trade with more efficient food producers and concentrated its own agricultural production in the areas where it has a natural comparative advantage. But again, this will only be possible if it ignores the Alliance Party’s advice, drops EU SPS regulations and opens up its domestic market to non-EU food producers.

There are a lot of countries with large land masses that could supply the world with real meat from animals that have lived in a field rather than a shed. Buying meat from more efficient developed nations or from developing nations with lower wages, cheaper land and lower relative currencies would be a much better solution for both those exporting nations as well as UK consumers.

Laboratory produced cell-based meat is probably coming whether we like it or not and the market should be allowed to decide if this is a good idea. If people want to buy laboratory produced meat, let them – just make sure that it is labelled so that consumers know what they are getting, as we should also be labelling intensive, indoor produced meat.

Grass fed animals that roam the fields of countries with mild winters, must surely be an environmentally preferable source of meat production than a laboratory. So rather than replace meat in a laboratory, the UK should follow Australia’s example and use innovation to make its meat production more sustainable.

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Catherine is a Fellow at the Centre for Brexit Policy.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.