Rethink cattle keeping in lab meat era


Cattle drink water at a pool in Namthoe village in Kisumu. PHOTO | JACOB OWITI | NMG



  • Thinktanks such as RethinkX predict the US dairy industry will be ‘all but bankrupt’ by 2030.
  • Kenya has got mired in a misinformed debate on crop protection.
  • The opportunity in manufactured meat may be lost on us: despite the perfection of our solar dividend.

There will come a day, and it isn’t far away, when no one cares about land for cattle: because we now face one of our planet’s biggest ever technological revolutions in food and agriculture, so big, that it will make our debates, the incursions, the killings, the arguing about antibiotics in livestock, the lobbying and the entire agricultural conversation of the early 20th Century look truly quaint and funny.

At some point during this Covid pandemic, in late 2020, Singapore approved for sale its first lab-grown chicken meat, also known as cultured meat, from just one manufacturer among many now developing cell-based food production.

Their plants use bioreactors that swirl around soups of cells and plant extracts, some of them solar-powered, and with some innovators claiming they will best be run in deserts in future.

But wherever our ‘new meat’ plants grow fastest, the move to cultured meat is overdue. For it is the human food chain that is messing up our planet.

The fact is that we have turned Planet Earth into one big food production machine, with one recent article in the UK’s Guardian observing: “By weight, 60 percent of the mammals on earth are livestock, 36 percent are humans, and only 4percent are wild.” Farming, and food production, use the lion’s share of our power and water too.

However, with lab meat mega-plants now going up in the USA, part-owned by the world’s largest food producers, such as Cargill; Israeli technology companies offering public tastings of lab meat; and others developing bioreactors making milk and flours too, the world’s industrial machinery is limbering up to taking over our food production.

Indeed, thinktanks such as RethinkX predict the US dairy industry will be ‘all but bankrupt’ by 2030. It further forecasts American beef industry revenues will have fallen by 90 percent by 2035.

Others forecast a slower decline. But I still remember the first time a press release came across my desk about a startup that had just won an award for a wireless technology called Bluetooth: when we have a real technological leap, it only takes a few years to sweep in.

But the real deal for me is what all this means for Kenya, and for African agriculture.

I have long believed agriculture was the way to get Africa onwards from its poverty trap: so much unused land, so much inefficient production and so many ways we can lift yields.

But, I think now, and for the first time, the agricultural prize is getting away from us. Kenya, in particular, has got mired in a misinformed debate on crop protection, even as it accumulates new and serious pests on a near-monthly basis as climate change drives up viruses, bacteria, fungi and insects.

Our food imports only climb, our food productivity only falls, and someone only needs to do an artwork saying ‘all Sukuma Wiki is poisonous’ and it seems no one can even be bothered to interrogate the source further.

But even the opportunity in manufactured meat may be lost on us: despite the perfection of our solar dividend.

It was only when I was studying census data and seeing how much faster the cattle population has risen in our key pastoralist counties than our population — look at all these much richer pastoralists with their nearly doubling cattle per head — that people began to explain the extra cattle, the ones in so much need of the last greenish land in our arid and semi-arid areas, were money laundering herds, held to hide wealth and, no, we had not had a sea-change in pastoralist wealth the last 10 years.

Yet, there goes Africa again, Kenya again. We are going to pump money into cattle there is no grazing land for, instead of buying shares in the new meat-making plants or building our own. And that’s how we can get to lose most of our agricultural production and stay poor too.

We can just pop our heads into the sand and work hard not to see which way the river is flowing. We can just do things the old-fashioned ways and fight over dwindling resources that no one will even value in a decade.