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Only a fifth of countries provide sick pay — the big challenges for work in a pandemic
From a personal point of view and from an economic point of view, this is nothing short of potentially disastrous for people's livelihoods.
Making sure that sick people get the care they need and don't infect others is one of the key planks of containing COVID-19 - but the majority of the world's workers have little choice about putting in a shift, even if they feel unwell.
This is one of the worrying findings of a survey released by the International Trade Union Congress, which surveyed its members in 86 countries around the world to monitor government and employer responses to the pandemic.
According to the study, only 21% of countries are providing sick leave for all or some workers. The countries polled represent a swathe of the world's most powerful economies, including 28 out of 36 OECD countries and fifteen G20 countries.
Reflecting the severity of the situation, over half of all countries surveyed (53%) were containing the spread of the coronavirus with national lock-down measures such as the closure of schools and non-essential businesses.
This unprecedented situation is sending shockwaves through the world of work. To soften the blow, governments were most likely to opt for the five policies below, according to the ITUC:
- Provision of free health care - 50% of countries
- Employment protection for those self-isolating - 34% of countries
- Tax relief for businesses - 31% of countries
- Paid sick leave for a period of self-isolation - 29% of countries
- Bailout funds for business or sectors - 29% of countries
To find out more about the exceptional challenges facing workers, and how both businesses and governments can best safeguard livelihoods, I spoke to Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the ITUC. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation, which you can listen to in full here. Subscribe to World Economic Forum's COVID podcast here.
Where are you, and what is daily working life like for you right now?
I'm now working from home in Brussels. All our staff are working remotely except those of our security team and the occasional IT role. It's a challenge now to manage, a global office of people in their own homes. The technology we have now really does play up the opportunities, but it also highlights the costs and potential risks of people being atomized from their place of work.
What have you found to be the single toughest nut to crack in this situation?
The mental health cost of this crisis will play out in the months to come - so I think just making sure people are connected and stay in touch is critical. And those human interactions we take for granted on a daily basis - passing someone in the coffee corner, having a quick briefing, whatever the daily rhythm might be - you don't realize how efficient those interactions can be until you're trying to manage that remotely.
And for people with young children, this is an incredibly difficult time. Balancing work and family is a whole new realm of challenges. So from a personal point of view and from an economic point of view, this is nothing short of potentially disastrous for people's livelihoods and indeed for stable economies.
What can workplaces do to better support parents during this time?
We have to think about how to provide a mix of work and parenting that works, because children matter as well. Their mental health matters, and their need for support and activity, scheduling and even just attention is very important for their own health and development.
You have to be conscious that parents can't be online and available to work 24/7. People must feel able to say, I can't work for these hours but I'm available at these times.
What impact do you expect this crisis to have on the global jobs market?
The imbalance of the global economy is now being felt. First of all, we should say thank you to those businesses who have kept their staff on, who have made sure that they have income security and a sense of job security in the medium to longer term. But there are many businesses who have simply taken an opportunity to lay off staff. In some cases, they are taking government support and still laying off staff.
So there is a divide in the business community. There is one set of businesses who say, we need to look after our workers, and we need to work with the unions to make sure that the humane aspects of this crisis are dealt with as positively as possible. There have been joint calls to government to support people - first and foremost, workers on the frontlines. Our health workers, transport workers, workers in supermarkets and related services, care facilities, schools where they're still operating; there are high-risk safety issues for workers in those situations, and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
But beyond that, where the factories and retail outlets and services are shutting down, people often have far too little sick pay, if any at all. Wage and job guarantees are lacking. The International Labor Organization (ILO) says we could lose up to 25 million jobs worldwide – and depending on the timeframe, it could be worse than that.
Major job losses are expected in travel and tourism. Image: Statista
So we have to do everything to minimize the fallout. First of all, only 50% of countries are providing free public healthcare – that is a glaring gap. And if that's the case in the richer world, then in developing economies where the virus is only just starting to spread, the health fallout could be disastrous. So if it's a mix of public and private testing and care, it has to be run on public health principles, it has to be available to everybody and it must be a partnership.
And where businesses have been forced to close their doors, of course not everybody can work from home. In fact, 50% of the world's population aren't connected to the internet. Looking at the responses to-date, mostly from Europe, the US, Australia and a few other countries, we have seen quite a lot of initiatives to support small businesses in particular.
But when you then consider that only 21% of countries in the richer world provide paid sick leave for workers, then that's a disaster of humanitarian crisis levels. That is unconscionable.
Beyond paid sick leave, people need income security. If you're not a direct employee, you're still going to need income, whether you're self-employed or working in the informal economy. We certainly need to see income support. The guaranteed packages to date have to be expanded.
Then, of course, in terms of job or employment protection, only around 15 of the G20 countries have given guarantees about supporting jobs. This has to be in the next wave of measures under consideration by all governments. We've asked the G20 governments to look at measures that support workers and small businesses in partnership, because you can't just give money to businesses if it then doesn't flow to their workers. There has got to be some sort of criteria, some conditionality, and some direct investment in working families themselves. That's the best guarantee for the real economy. We need to look at the economy as a whole, taking it from the perspective of working people and their families, which wasn't done in the 2008/2009 process.
Are there any countries that you feel are really getting this right?
Yes - those countries who have looked at the key elements of paid sick leave and income guarantees for all workers, and what the mix of that should be. The best of those packages have been negotiated with unions in Europe and the UK. Outside of Europe, places like New Zealand, Singapore and Argentina have done a very good job of making critical economic decisions, and they have looked to be inclusive of all people. In some Latin American countries we've also seen some measures to include the informal sector - particularly those who work in farming communities. That's a very good thing.
Our message is very simple: you have to look at guaranteed paid sick leave. This is a health crisis. It's different to the crisis of 2008/9; this one started with a human dimension, in the real economy, and is now spreading to the financial sector. In 2008/9 we saw the speculative economy simply spiral out of control, and that caused a crisis in the real economy. We took huge hits - there was high unemployment, and inequality escalated - but our economies didn't shut down. This is a very different environment and we need to think about the short-term timeframe.
What are the package deals? We know what they should involve; support workers with income support and job protection. We can support small businesses and make sure that we're able to pick up an economic base in the medium term. But then from the medium to long term, we're going to be looking at post-reconstruction policy frameworks. We haven't really had to deal with that since big shocks like the Great Depression or World War II, which was followed by the Marshall Plan and debt swaps. Now, of course, we need to design policies to align with investment in people and the environment.
But above all, the longer-term perspective is about rebalancing economies. What we don't want is an unbalanced economy where you can't get essentials like healthcare products and food because they're produced in one group of countries and not in a balanced fashion around the world. We have to look at how to build a better economy alongside the convergent crisis of the environment – which is not going to go away.
COVID-19 intersects with the underlying inequality crisis that was already fragmenting our societies and creating an age of anger along with the challenges posed by technology. In some ways, this experience will tell us what we need to do to get it right – so that people are connected and we're not abusing technology at the cost of both people's physical and mental health.
These are big challenges. But going forward from the medium to the longer term, we need more social dialogue in order to design a better and more balanced economy.
Of course, right now we're all focused on the short term, because dealing with all the areas of crisis that are converging is critical at the moment. Most importantly, we must keep the central supply chains — for healthcare products and food, for example — open. Mindless border closures, without thinking about the consequences, have made this more difficult than it should have been.
The second area of challenge is the supply chains for non-essential items. With sectors such as retail electronics, for example, closing down in the short term, we risk even greater devastation than is caused by the current dehumanizing exploitation of supply chains. If you're talking about a million people in Bangladesh in the textile sector alone, and multiply that across all the Asian, African and Latin American supply chains in those sectors, then you get a picture of the potential human cost. There is also a risk that much of that business won't come back quickly. So it is a time for social dialogue, and for rapid response from governments. The multilateral environment has been found wanting; we've all been saying it's in crisis, but now it's hardly there at all. So the G20 meeting will tell us who's going to act and who's not, and what we can do with businesses and workers' organizations to support those governments who want to act in the interests of their own countries, but also vitally in partnership with the developing world, which will be devastated.
Has your organization heard stories of people who have no choice but to turn up to work sick, and who then presumably spread the pandemic even further?
Oh, it's everywhere. If people work in the informal sector, if they're day workers, if they're in factories that are still open and there's no paid sick leave, no income guarantee, then they have no choice. You have to feed your family, so you're going to go to work. And that is a recipe for extending the reach of the virus beyond the containment period that we're all working towards right now.
What is your message to G20 leaders as they meet virtually to discuss the crisis?
It's very simple. The emergency plan should be to share our wealth and to re-establish a social contract that includes paid sick leave and income guarantees. And that means, of course, wages - but it also means those who are in self-employment, freelancers, platform business workers and the informal sector. This is a time for social protection generally and for investment in vital public services, beginning with health. The G20 countries are providing free public healthcare, and we have seen the stresses and strains on countries like Italy and Spain and others. Imagine what it's like when people simply can't afford to go to the doctor – even in countries like the US. So social protection, public services, health, education, care - these are the issues of design for the future that we need to get right.
If we're not to see this level of devastation with the continued inequality that we were already facing and, of course, if we are to do something about the climate emergency, which won't go away, then we have to marry the design of better economies with action on both the climate and COVID-19, along with those vital areas of employment protection. We need a new social contract. This crisis is showing the cracks in our world; if people are vulnerable, then the economy is vulnerable.
Times of crisis have historically also been opportunities for change. Are you optimistic that as we emerge from this, it could be a chance to create a better economy?
I can see how we could use this opportunity to design a better world, but we need both national and multilateral institutions to make it work. I was at the table in 2008, 2009 and 2010, when the G20 governments - along with the International Monetary Fund and other institutions - took decisions that were about people, about employment and about maintaining jobs, as well as, of course, stabilizing the economy.
Now - we didn't get it right. We certainly didn't get the rules of the financial sector right. We were worried about the too-big-to-touch banks, and we didn't solve that. Now we've got the too-big-to-touch monopolies in the global tech sector, and we haven't begun to solve that. And everything in between is also a replication, therefore, of the human cost involved when governments have failed to regulate the labour market. So we have now 60% of the global workforce actively working informally. And that means, of course, those working in platform businesses as well as those informal jobs with no rights, no minimum wage and no social protection that are emerging in our supply chains. That has to change.
It can change if people can sit at the table. But going back to the financial crisis, many of the key G20 leaders at that time - people like Gordon Brown, Barack Obama, Kevin Rudd and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva - these people have disappeared from our ranks, along with their experience. They acted together. What we're seeing now is a kind of retreat, which might be understandable emotionally, but it's not going to help us. Solidarity and sharing and deciding on how you protect people – both within nations and globally - is absolutely critical at the moment. We are trying desperately with some of the business community to rebuild that social dialogue with labour organizations, businesses and governments. But while it works tremendously well in some democratic countries, by and large it's not working in the majority of the world's countries and it's not working globally. And we have to come back from that.
People are aware of the extraordinary work going on in the healthcare sector right now. But what about the forgotten heroes - people who might be exposing themselves to risk to keep the wheels of our societies turning? Who are the vulnerable workers, and what can be done to protect them?
Healthcare workers are very vulnerable, because the lack of personal protective equipment has really caused much more infection amongst some of those frontline workers than should have been the case. Hopefully that's turning around, but I know from our unions in many countries that it's still at critical levels.
But then we also need transport and supermarket workers, for example, to keep the show going. People should thank these workers because if you can't buy food, then you can't keep your family sustained and healthy. There's an extraordinary set of challenges for them. And of course, there are essential services, but there are also people running homeless shelters, and shelters for victims of domestic violence, which, sadly, is on the increase. We need more safe havens for women and children. There are people working in aged care facilities looking after the most vulnerable group of people. And of course, there are all of the services that surround each of those sectors, because you can't run these operations without supplies and service support. These people are all heroes.
The terrible irony is often that those sectors, particularly on the frontlines of care, are dominated by women who are among the lowest paid workers in our communities. So when we come out of this there are questions to ask about who we value and who we are prepared to pay decent wages for the dignity of decent work, too. It's been an unresolved issue for a long time. It's about feminized industries and unequal pay and a lack of recognition. But I think there's a chance in the medium to long-term to say we must stop this, we must value those workers and we must pay them appropriately - with notable exceptions.
There is still a lack of women sitting around the table at leadership meetings like the G20. Do you think that is playing a role in some of the things that are just not being spotted in the response to this crisis?
Oh, without question. I think there's a lack of tables right now. There's no question that women's leadership is critical, because it will bring to the forefront the areas where women hold together the fabric not just of our societies and our communities, but also our economies.
There are, of course, the immediate packages [from governments] to give people security by protecting their jobs and incomes. But there is also, as I have indicated, medium to longer-term planning to undertake. The challenge there is to ask: how do we build better economies? How do we learn to balance sustainability, inclusiveness and decent working conditions, where people don't walk away from the human and labour rights of workers and instead build a future where the world is more equal but also much more stable?
Let's fast forward to an optimistic scenario. It's March 2021. The economy has recovered. What do you hope will have changed to make it a better economy for workers?
I hope that we can get beyond the dominant politics of leaders not putting people first. Of course, we want economic stability. We are working very closely with those voices in business who are dignified and responsible, despite their own challenges, in their concerns for their workers, and for government policies that are balanced and justified in these times. But we want an end to the profit-at-all-costs mentality, because if we don't build an economic future within a sustainable framework in which we are respectful of our planetary boundaries and the need to change our energy and technology systems, then we will not have a living planet for human beings.
And we must ensure that this design is inclusive of universal social protection. The world could fund it right now - and yet 70% of the world's population has no social protection. It must be respectful of public services rather than simply trying to profit from them. So public support for people and of course, of the social dialog that makes it possible for us to get the balance right, are crucial. If you've got workers, employers and civil society at the table with governments at all levels, then you can design the kind of future that takes into account the right priorities for people, for the planet and of course, for stable economies.
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What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Is Bitcoin akin to 'digital gold'?
- In October, PayPal announced that it would begin allowing users to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies.
- Other major fintech companies—Square, Fidelity, SoFi—have also recently begun investing heavily in cryptocurrencies.
- While prices are volatile, many investors believe cryptocurrencies are a relatively safe bet because blockchain technology will prove itself over the long term.
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon<p>The move came shortly after the payments company Square invested $50 million into Bitcoin, and after Fidelity announced that it was opening a Bitcoin fund into which qualified purchasers could invest <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-26/fidelity-launches-inaugural-bitcoin-fund-for-wealthy-investors" target="_blank">(minimum investment: $100,000)</a>. Together, this institutional backing might have something to do with Bitcoin's recent surge back to near its 2017 price peak of $19,783. (Bitcoin is listed at 19,384.30 as of Dec. 3.)<br></p>
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon<p>But more importantly, it suggests cryptocurrencies might soon have the opportunity to prove themselves in real-world use cases. After all, skeptics have long doubted the ability of cryptocurrencies to go mainstream as a form of everyday payment. But people seem increasingly comfortable with digital payment systems.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The entire world is going to come into digital first," Schulman said at Web Summit, adding that PayPal's services already go hand-in-hand with cryptocurrencies. "As we thought about it, digital wallets are a natural complement to digital currencies. We've got over 360 million digital wallets and we need to embrace cryptocurrencies."</p><p>Sanja Kon, vice president of global partnerships at the cryptocurrency payments processor company UTRUST, also spoke at Web Summit about the increasing adoption of digital payments:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Physical cash is becoming more and more obsolete. And the next step in the evolution is digital currency."</p><p>Kon noted some of the inherent advantages of cryptocurrencies, namely ownership. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"For many people, this is really the main benefit of cryptocurrency: Users owning cryptocurrencies are able to control how they spend their money without dealing with any intermediary authority like a bank or a government, for example," Kon said, adding that there are no bank fees associated with cryptocurrencies, and that international transaction fees are significantly lower than wire transfers of fiat currency.</p><p>Kon said cryptocurrencies have unique growth opportunities in areas where people aren't integrated into modern banking systems:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"With cryptocurrencies and blockchain, with the use of just a smartphone and access to internet, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies can be available to populations of people and users without access to the traditional banking system."</p>
Bitcoin as 'digital gold'<p>Still, it could take years for people to start using cryptocurrencies for everyday purchases on a large scale. Despite this, many cryptocurrency advocates see digital currencies, particularly Bitcoin, as a way to store value—digital gold, essentially.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I don't think Bitcoin is going to be used as a transactional currency anytime in the next five years," billionaire investor Mike Novogratz recently told <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-23/novogratz-says-bitcoin-is-digital-gold-not-a-currency-for-now?srnd=markets-vp" target="_blank">Bloomberg</a>. "Bitcoin is being used as a store of value. [...] "Bitcoin as a gold, as digital gold, is just going to keep going higher. More and more people are going to want it as some portion of their portfolio."</p><p>There are obvious parallels between gold and Bitcoin: Both are mined, do not degrade over time, are finite in supply, and aren't directly tied to the value of fiat currency, making them <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-gold-inflation/gold-as-an-inflation-hedge-well-sort-of-idUSKCN1GD516" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relatively invulnerable to inflation</a>. The obvious objection is that the price of Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies in general, is far more volatile than gold.</p><p>But for investors who believe the inherent value of cryptocurrency technology will prove itself over the long term, these price fluctuations are just bumps on the long road to the future of currency. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It's no longer a debate if crypto is a thing, if Bitcoin is an asset, if the blockchain is going to be part of the financial infrastructure," Novogratz said. "It's not if, it's when, and so every single company has to have a plan now."</p>
Singapore has approved the sale of a lab-grown meat product in an effort to secure its food supplies against disease and climate change.
Approve for your dining pleasure<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd3f57f8baf14e654812d30a309d1f17"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/307gysA18_E?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><a href="https://www.ju.st/en-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Eat Just</a>, a company that produces animal-alternative food products, announced the news earlier this week. In what the company is calling a world first, Singapore has given it permission for a small-scale commercial launch of their GOOD Meat brand product line. For the initial run, the cultured chicken meat will be sold as an ingredient in "chicken bites."</p><p>"Singapore has long been a leader in innovation of all kinds, from information technology to biologics to now leading the world in building a healthier, safer food system. I'm sure that our regulatory approval for cultured meat will be the first of many in Singapore and in countries around the globe," Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of Eat Just, <a href="https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20201201006251/en/Eat-Just-Granted-World%E2%80%99s-First-Regulatory-Approval-for-Cultured-Meat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said in a release</a>.</p><p>According to the release, Eat Just underwent an extensive safety review by the Singapore Food Agency. It provided officials "details on the purity, identity and stability of chicken cells during the manufacturing process, as well as a detailed description of the manufacturing process which demonstrated that harvested cultured chicken met quality controls and a rigorous food safety monitoring system." It also demonstrated the consistency of its production by running more than 20 cycles in its 1,200-liter bioreactors.</p><p>While Eat Just did not offer details on its propriety process, it likely follows <a href="https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24032080-400-accelerating-the-cultured-meat-revolution/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">one similar to other lab-grown meats</a>. It starts with muscle cell samples drawn from a living animal. Technicians then isolate stem cells from the sample and culture them <em>in vitro</em>. These cultured stem cells are then placed in a bioreactor, essentially a fermenter for fleshy cells. The bioreactor contains scaffolding materials to keep the growing tissue from falling apart as well as a growth material—the sugars, salts, and other nutrients the tissue needs to grow. As the cells grow, they begin to differentiate into the muscle, fat, and other cells of meat tissue. Once grown, the tissues are formed into a meat product to be shipped to restaurants and supermarkets.</p>
An abattoir abatement?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg2Mjg5OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODg1NDI3N30.AYmFJfWQbPjK-o1IatyFHL-OLjcfXBMmQKYyvz4oT3s/img.jpg?width=980" id="8a82d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="93f824fe4c6f397ab2b65e4665847e71" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A graph showing the number of animals slaughtered in the United States per year from 1961–2018.
Credit: Our World in Data<p>Singapore's approval is an important step in support for clean meats—so-called because they don't require animal slaughter and would likely leave a reduced carbon footprint—but hurdles remain before widespread adoption is possible.</p><p>The most glaring is the price. The first lab-grown hamburger was eaten in London in 2013. <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-23576143" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">It cost roughly $330,000</a>. As with any new technology, investment, iteration, and improved manufacturing will see the price drop substantially and quickly. For comparison, Eat Just's chicken will be priced equivalent to premium chicken.</p><p>Other hurdles include up-scaling production, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00373-w" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the need for further research</a>, and developing techniques to reliably produce in-demand meats such as fish and beef. Finally, not all countries may be as receptive as Singapore. Countries with large, entrenched meat industries may protect this legacy industry through a protracted and difficult regulatory process. Though, the meat industry itself is investing in lab-grown meat. Tyson Foods, for example, has <a href="https://euromeatnews.com/Article-Tyson-Foods-announces-investment-in-clean-meat/697" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">invested in the food-tech startup Memphis Meats</a>, the company that debuted the world's first beef meatball.</p><p>"I would imagine what will happen is the U.S., Western Europe and others will see what Singapore has been able to do, the rigours of the framework that they put together. And I would imagine that they will try to use it as a template to put their own framework together," <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-eat-just-singapore/singapore-approves-sale-of-lab-grown-meat-in-world-first-idUSKBN28C06Z" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetrick told Reuter's during an interview</a>.</p><p>Regardless of the challenges, the demand for meat substitutes is present and growing. In 2020, plant-based substitutes like Beyond Meat and Impossible foods <a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/plant-based-meat" target="_self">gained a significant foothold in supermarkets</a> as meat-packing factories became coronavirus hotspots. The looming threat of climate change has also turned people away from meat as animal products. Livestock production is environmentally taxing and leaves <a href="http://css.umich.edu/factsheets/carbon-footprint-factsheet" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a much larger carbon footprint</a> than grain and vegetable production. </p><p>Then there's the moral concern of animal cruelty. In 2018 alone, 302 million cows, 656 million turkeys, 1.48 billion pigs, and a gob-smacking 68 billion chickens were <a href="https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/animals-slaughtered-for-meat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slaughtered for meat worldwide</a>. And those figures do not include chickens killed in dairy or egg production.</p><p>If brought to scale and widely available, clean meats could become serious competitors to traditional meat. <a href="https://bigthink.com/technology-innovation/meat-alternatives" target="_self">One report has even predicted</a> that 60 percent of the meat people eat by 2040 won't come from slaughtered animals. It could be just the thing for people looking for a meat substitute but who find tofurkey as distasteful as, well tofurkey.</p>