The promises and pitfalls of trying to disrupt the meat industry
If you pay any attention to food trends, you’re likely to have come across the emerging phenomenon that is “lab-grown meat.” Eating meat grown in a lab may not sound appealing to some, but it could be available in some restaurants as early as 2021.
Cultured meat has been a concept since at least 1931, when Winston Churchill predicted it in an essay. The first patents were awarded in 1999 and the industry has continued to grow legs with the rapid advancement of technology, which now includes over 60 companies and around $140 million in funding. A fair share of global investments and acquisitions show that there’s interest (and money) in the industry. The scientists and owners behind it are still wrinkling out some details though. For one, they can’t seem to land on a name: lab-grown meat, cultured meat, meat tech, clean meat, cell-based meat, cultivated meat, slaughter-free meat, and (my favorite) motherless meat.
Proponents of lab-grown meat say it will provide a humane, sustainable, and healthy alternative to meat sourced from factory farms. For the first time, consumers would be able to eat meat that resulted from no slaughter.
This part in particular plucked my curiosity. I was an ethical vegetarian for 10 years before switching to a diet that includes organic, humane (often local) animal products due to chronic health issues. Reintroducing meat into my diet after so long had some pretty grievous growing pains. I couldn’t stop thinking about the living animal that the meat on my plate used to be. Everything tasted rotten to me while I adjusted to the diet. When I first read about lab-grown meat last year, I was naturally intrigued. Could guilt-free animal products actually exist?
The timing could certainly be in the favor of those companies trying to break the market open. COVID-19 outbreaks at meat processing facilities and coinciding meat shortages have generated more consumer interest in plant-based meat and meat sourced from small, local farms. The pandemic has brought to light some real issues with how the meat industry currently runs things.
Opponents, though, are not so sure of the benefits of this “new meat” frontier. With a lot of work still to be done, the claims that lab-grown meat will be affordable and better for the environment are yet to be confirmed.
How motherless meat is born
In order to create this modern edible marvel, a muscle sample is first taken from an animal. From there, scientists collect stem cells from the sample and multiply them to create muscle tissue. Cellular agriculture, as a whole, is simply using cultures to build cell-based products outside of an organism.
The groundwork for the science has more or less already been established in the field of regenerative medicine (i.e., growing kidneys in a lab for the sake of repair or replacement).
Creating the taste, texture, and form of a desired meat product is where it gets tricky. Building a steak or fillet, for example, is much more difficult than producing ground meat.
The good bits
Lab-grown meat has the potential to provide humane, cruelty-free food to the public. These products could also help disrupt the existing centralized, factory farm format. And they could help combat climate change to boot. For example: one of the current players, Mosa Meat, claims that one tissue sample from a cow can yield enough muscle tissue to make 80,000 quarter-pounders. Compare this with the land, water, and crop resources needed to raise, feed, and slaughter cows for the same number of burgers. Some estimates say that lab-grown meat would cut down on the land requirements by 99% and water requirements by 90% while producing much less greenhouse-gas emissions from cows, pigs, and poultry.
Compound this with the fact that the global demand for meat is rising in a landscape that simply can’t support it. Growing seafood in a lab could also help combat the current overfishing problem that’s wreaking havoc on the ocean.
With the ability to modify the genes as needed, lab-grown meat could actually be cleaner and healthier for us. Cellular agriculture could be used to reduce the negative health impacts of certain meats or increase nutritional values as well as potentially lower allergens. Not to mention, we won’t have to worry about environmental contaminants like pesticides, hormones, or chemicals seeping into our food if it’s done in a clean lab.
On top of these, the food security crisis is worsening. Lab-grown meat could provide nutrition to food-insecure areas with limited agriculture options. Singapore, for example, is very interested in the industry as a country with little land and concerns over food scarcity.
Cultured meat could be great for people who want to eat less meat but can’t sustain a vegetarian diet due to allergies or health issues. It could provoke an interesting conversation on what it means to be an ethical vegan or vegetarian (maybe even creating a new name for people who only eat cultivated meat).
In addition to feeding people, lab-grown meat could create some big opportunities in the pet food world. Currently, cats and dogs consume more than 25% of the US meat supply. We could potentially feed our pets the quality protein they need with a reduced environmental footprint.
The rotten bits
The pros, however, mostly land in the realm of possibility, not current reality. The industry has been met with its fair share of criticisms. Because it’s still in its infancy, we don’t know the long-term effects of eating meat grown in a lab (or if it could even be done to scale). It could fall into the same public skepticism as genetically modified crops. Despite hundreds of thorough, independent studies confirming the safety of GMO’s, there are large swaths of the public that still believe they’re harmful. If lab-grown meat steps into the mainstream, they’ll likely have a major undertaking to convince the public of its safety.
The environmental claims also might not be as sound as proponents make them out to be. It’s unclear how much energy it takes to create cell-cultured meat at scale, especially accounting for the electricity and heat required to grow the cells in a lab. Electricity, after all, is a much larger culprit of greenhouse gas emissions than agriculture.
To add to these concerns, many people still can’t stomach the idea of eating meat from a petri dish. A 2018 Michigan State University poll found that 48% of respondents weren’t willing to try it. Amidst a pretty significant “natural” movement, lots of people are rejecting modern medicine and returning to organic, unrefined whole foods and supplements. While chemically, the meat from a lab and a farm are the same, the former is anything but natural. Transparency and messaging will be key with these companies want to earn public trust.
They’ll also need to ensure that this new meat is actually as humane as they claim. For instance, there’s the challenge of fetal bovine serum. The serum is derived from the blood of cow fetuses and is often added to the cultures to promote growth. In order to market their meat as cruelty free, they need to develop an alternative.
They also need to make sure it’s affordable, which they’re already well on their way of achieving. In 2013, cell-cultured meat was priced at $1.2 million per pound. Seven years later, it’s only around $50 per pound. Scaling up for mass production is still going to be difficult though, simply by nature of the actual science. The culture medium needed for cells to grow is expensive and the whole process takes time.
Lab-grown meat also has to contend with, well, conventional meat. There are already complaints from the meat industry about calling it “meat” when it doesn’t come from raising and slaughtering an animal (in much the same way that dairy producers have beef with nut milk being labeled as “milk”). If not meat, though, what would it be called? Some have argued that this could pose a safety issue for people with meat allergies.
Another notable barrier comes into play when we see that many of the very companies who are causing the issues in the meat industry are the ones investing in these start-ups. Can we trust that these companies are genuinely trying to better the industry? How do we know if they have the public’s best interest in mind?
Further, is lab-grown meat able to provide the same nutritional value that organic, grass-fed meat from small, diversified farms can provide? Would more long-term benefits come from decentralizing food production?
The skeptic in me can’t help but recall the positive intentions of the factory farm. The model was first created to feed more people, but it has since completely disrupted the food industry for the worse. Our food is now more centralized and less nutritious. Factory farms and monoculture cause more damage to the environment and unnecessary cruelty to animals being treated as commodities.
Is lab-grown meat this century’s version of the factory farm? Will it actually help end hunger and fight climate change, or is it just another band-aid on the industry?
As far as the implications for food-insecure regions with poor agricultural opportunities, I think lab-grown meat could actually help feed those in need. It could also augment the meat supply in the case of crop failure due to climate or disease. For developed countries with established agriculture industries? I think more focus needs to go toward decentralizing food production into smaller, sustainable farms.
As the technology continues to become more advanced, we’ll see where the appetite lies.