View from the Street: What came first - the chicken or the egg?

Juan Palenzuela

View from the Street: What came first - the chicken or the egg?

The December 1931 issue of The Strand Magazine published an article by Winston Churchill titled ‘Fifty Years Hence’. In the article, Churchill gives his predictions for the modern world, some of which displayed the future prime minister’s remarkable foresight, including wireless technology, and others are yet to come to fruition, such as a robot-controlled Communist state.

The stand-out prediction for me, however, concerns the humble hen.

Churchill suggested that “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

Looking ahead to the first commercialised synthetic chicken product due to be released by American company JUST this year, I’d suggest Churchill was only off by a couple of decades.

But if 1931 was a bit early for Frankenstein creations grown in a lab, 2018 is a hungry customer for radical solutions to address a growing demand for food worldwide, and meat in particular.

Demand for meat per capita in developing countries is increasing rapidly, while at the same time the global population is rising and becoming more urbanised. A United Nations study found that by 2050, the urban population globally will increase by 2.5 billion, meaning that two-thirds of us will be living in towns and cities, up from 54% today. Perhaps even more interestingly, the study found that over 90% of urban growth will come from Africa and Asia alone.

This presents a challenge as meat consumption does not increase in a linear fashion. A study by Cristopher Delgado, from the International Food Policy Research Institute, found that the populations of developing countries increase their animal-sourced food consumption as their income increases. Over the past ten years, the amount of meat consumed in developing countries has grown as much as three times more than in developed countries.

To add to the problem, our current agricultural practices are environmentally costly. Eighteen percent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, a higher percentage than transport at 15%, according to the UN. Unlike the automobile industry, which has been disrupted by electric vehicles and emission caps, agriculture has remained largely unchanged since the industrial revolution. It is fair to say that our current meat-growing methods will not be able to sustainably meet the demands of the future. To deliver the extra meat, humanity will be forced to come up with new production methods.

What growing chickens in labs really gets at then is the question of global food security.

Churchill was onto something in 1931. The answer may lie in cellular agriculture - the field of growing agricultural products directly from cell cultures instead of using livestock. The result is molecularly identical to the original animal-sourced product, but results in a fraction of the environmental impact and uses substantially less land.

The proof of concept was unveiled by professor Mark Post in 2013, a single cultured burger that costed around £250,000 to develop. Today, the cost of developing the same burger lies at around £450. Not quite the price of a Big Mac yet, but new cellular mediums and economies of scale could make cultured meat as cheap as animal meat in the not-so-distant future.

What does this all mean for food security? If cellular agriculture becomes a large-scale reality, the manufacturing sites for animal products could move near to cities, if not in city centres themselves, giving further economic incentive for those communities traditionally associated with farming, and currently overwhelmingly located in rural locations, to set up shop in the big city.

As Churchill knew, Frankenstein chickens aren’t as preposterous as was first thought. Trends towards globalisation, urbanisation and environmentally-sustainable living are concepts we can all get behind in 2018. 

And cellular agriculture will answer one eternal question; the chicken does in fact come before the egg.

Juan Palenzuela is a researcher with Charlotte Street Partners