by: Ocean Robbins
Beef burgers, veggie burgers, and now… lab-grown meat? You may have heard rumblings that cultured meat — made from animal stem cells — may become a mainstream consumer option soon. Is it true? And if so, is it a good thing? What is lab-grown food? And should we be preparing for it to change the food system as we know it?
Since 2013, lab-grown food — and specifically cultured “clean meat” — has been gathering increasing attention and funding. The first-ever lab-grown burger was created in 2013 by scientist Mark Post, a professor of tissue engineering at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. It garnered press interest when it was eaten and reviewed by two food critics at a London news conference. While lab-grown meat isn’t available commercially just yet (it will likely hit shelves in 2021), it’s clearly been in the works for quite some time.
Plant-based meat alternatives, on the other hand, are available now and have become very popular in the last five years. Today, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat products are sold in restaurants and grocery stores around the world, sometimes even fooling meat-eaters into thinking they’re chowing down on actual beef. And there’s a long tradition of veggie burgers made from peas, soy, beans, grains, mushrooms, and vital wheat gluten, which may not attempt to fool the palate so much as provide a hearty, tasty, and convenient alternative to “real” burgers.
While the conversation about switching away from conventional meat to alternatives has taken on new urgency recently, it actually dates back to the 1970s, sparked by a book called Diet for a Small Planet. The author, Frances Moore Lappé, wrote about the negative effects of industrialized animal agriculture on the planet, sparking discussion about necessary changes to the food system for a more ethical and sustainable world.
The Future of Food?
Fast forward to today, and scientists and entrepreneurs are looking at ways they can mitigate the environmental impacts of factory farming and animal agriculture. Many researchers and thought leaders are encouraging people to eat less meat to reduce their impact on the planet. The authoritative medical journal The Lancet published a 2019 report advocating a largely plant-based diet as the basis of a more equitable and sustainable world, as well as one with far less chronic disease. The authors argue that if everyone in the world switched to a diet that included half the amount of red meat and sugar than the Western diet typically does — and instead based their diets on fruits and vegetables — we’d leave future generations with a more stable climate and a healthier planet, while approximately 11 million fewer people would die annually from preventable causes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted problems in the food production system, especially involving the meat industry. Meatpacking plants turn out to be a great way to spread a virus. Some have even been forced to close because so many of their workers were getting sick. Owing in part to supply chain disruptions, and in part to changing consumer sentiment, meat consumption has dropped. The drop is so noticeable that experts have predicted that “pre-pandemic” meat consumption numbers won’t bounce back until 2025 (if ever).
With the disturbing realities of the meat industry entering public consciousness at the same time as a global pandemic that apparently came from an animal, the question of lab-grown meat has become timely. Is it the way of the future? Is it a safe, ethical, and cost-effective way to provide meat to the public? Or is it just another idealistic fad, entrepreneurial wild goose chase, or dangerous biotechnology? Let’s take a closer look at what lab-grown food is and what it may have to offer.
What is Lab-Grown Food?
There are two main types of lab-grown food currently in development: meat and dairy. These are produced either directly from animal cells or via microorganisms through fermentation. The cultivation of food in these ways is sometimes referred to as cellular agriculture.
To make cultivated meat, scientists extract muscle stem cells (called “myosatellite” cells) from an animal and grow them in a medium (a highly processed raw calorie source) to produce muscle tissue in a laboratory setting. Next, the tissue is fed, multiplied, shaped, and structured using bioreactors to become what we might recognize as a burger or meat product.
While it’s a novel idea to many of us, it’s been more science fact than science fiction for a while now. NASA has been studying and using this “in vitro” meat since 2001 to feed astronauts on long space missions. And the idea for lab-grown meat originated long before then, with a man named Willem van Eelen, who filed original patents for the idea in the 1940s.
Fermentation-based cellular agriculture, on the other hand, is a relatively new method of creating animal-free protein and dairy products. Companies are using bioengineered yeast-like microflora, which ferments plant sugar to produce casein and whey, the milk proteins found naturally in dairy. These are then used to produce milk and milk products.
What About 3D-Printed Food?
Note that there’s also a difference between cultured foods and 3D-printed food. The latter comes from lab-grown cells, which are inserted into a magnetic 3D printer and replicated from there to produce muscle tissue (the meat) in various shapes. In 2018, cosmonauts completed a very Star Trek-like experiment on the International Space Station by making thin 3D-printed steaks with cells harvested from a living cow. By doing so, they showed that food, including meat, could be grown in harsh environments where water or soil is scarce. The technology could prove increasingly useful for the conservation of natural resources in food production, or the potential for producing food without the need for agriculture.
Potential Benefits and Problems
So what are the potential pros and cons of lab-grown meat? There are a lot of perspectives to cover, so let’s divide them up by area.
How Much Will it Cost?
Assuming it’s commercially viable, lab-grown meat will likely be more expensive than conventional meat — at least initially. The first lab-grown hamburger, which was a five-ounce beef patty cultivated in a petri dish, took two years to make and cost about $325,000 at the time.
This isn’t unusual, as new technologies almost always have a costly research and development phase. Once people start purchasing, and production volume increases, costs almost always go down. (This was true with plant-based burgers like the Impossible Burger as well. Originally, they cost around $20 per burger to make and were difficult to find. Now, they’re everywhere and sell for around eight dollars per pound.) Lab-grown meat, once it’s produced on an industrial scale, could eventually achieve price parity with (or cost less than) steaks and burgers made from the flesh of animals.
One of the largest cost obstacles is the cell culture medium used to make cultured meat. Basically, the question is: What’s the raw material that’s cultured to produce the final product? So far, nothing ecologically or economically sustainable has been implemented. But researchers believe that in time, raw materials from large-scale agricultural production could serve as inputs for cultivated meat. This would mean that it might be possible to turn a “waste” product into food.
Preventing Biotech Monopolies
Eventually, at least in theory, lab-grown meat and other proteins could become less expensive than those produced from traditional farming. But will that ever come to pass? What about food ownership and centralized control? There are already patents in place for lab-grown or in vitro meat — US6835390B1 and US7270829B2. So will clean meat ultimately turn into a power grab from a few companies that seek to control the world’s food supply (much like Monsanto-Bayer’s impact on the seed industry)?
There’s little doubt that if in vitro meat and cultivated proteins catch on and achieve widespread adaptation, somebody will seek to have as much control, and to make as much money, as possible in the process. And if history is any indication, the power that comes with any monopoly is not likely to be democratically distributed. Because of this, antitrust laws need to be in place so that the biotechnology can be managed in ways that at least have the potential to alleviate world hunger rather than increasing it.
Is Lab-Grown Food Better for the Environment?
According to a massive study published in the journal Science in 2018, meat and dairy provide 18% of the calories that humans consume. But their production uses 83% of global farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Industrial agriculture is an enormous contributor to water usage and pollution. And it’s also one of the biggest threats to global biodiversity. Land clearance for agriculture destroys wild animal habitats, which ultimately can lead to species extinction.
Because it has the potential for growth with a high level of efficiency — and without the production of methane, ammonia, manure, and other waste products — lab-grown food could, at least in theory, be more sustainable than existing animal agriculture. Exactly how sustainable, however, could depend, in large measure, on breakthroughs in the growth medium that’s used, as well as the type of energy used to produce it. Facilities could potentially run on clean energy — like fermentation-based Solein from Solar Foods — which could reduce production emissions by 40-80%.
Will it Reduce or Eliminate Animal Cruelty?
As it stands today, more than 70 billion land animals are killed globally, every year, to supply the food system. Factory farming is notorious for its cruel treatment of animals, which often involves brutal living conditions and ultimately ends in slaughter.
Cultivated meat, on the other hand, uses stem cells or skin cells extracted from the animal — via a minor procedure — to grow the meat product. Just one stem cell sample may produce enough muscle tissue to make 80,000 quarter-pound hamburgers.
Is lab-grown meat vegan, then? Maybe not technically, since lab-grown meat does still require cells taken from animals at one point in the production process. But organizations like PETA and Mercy for Animals have jumped in with enthusiastic endorsement.
However, as currently produced, there is another ethical concern to bear in mind. Thus far, most cell-based meat has used fetal bovine serum (calf fetus blood) in its growing medium, which raises some serious ethical concerns.
When a pregnant cow is killed, the fetus is removed from its mother and bled to death. The blood is then refined and turned into fetal bovine serum. Most of the cultured meat produced to date has been grown on this medium — making it far from vegan-friendly. However, as the technology has progressed, some companies have begun to replace this medium with a plant-based one. But in order for cultured meat to have any chance of achieving widespread cultural acceptance, it seems likely that a total elimination of dependency on fetal bovine serum is necessary.
Is Lab-Grown Meat Healthier?
The health problems associated with red and processed meat are well documented, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain forms of cancer. So will lab-grown foods be any better?
The cells used to grow cultivated meat don’t grow fat cells because the stem cells used are made from muscle tissue. Fat has to be added to the cultivated meat later, which means producers can control their fat profiles. It’s widely believed that cultured meat could eventually be engineered to have specific nutrient profiles and therefore intended health outcomes for consumers. This could mean tinkering with the composition of essential amino acids, fat, vitamins, minerals, and bioactive compounds that wind up in the end product. In theory, this could lead to a product with, for example, a more optimized amino acid profile, higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, and lower levels of saturated fat, than conventional meat.
This is all still theoretical, of course. Any time humans tinker with nature, we risk some big surprises. The best of intentions could lead to unanticipated consequences. So it behooves us to do thorough testing led by unbiased researchers, before releasing any newly fabricated “meat” product on large numbers of people. But it seems possible that, in comparison to conventional meat, lab meat could eventually have a net health benefit.
Other Health Concerns
And there are other factors to consider, too. Traditional animal products are a major cause of foodborne illnesses, outbreaks, and food recalls. Bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli live in the guts of animals, which can be transmitted in the food system through fecal contamination. This poses huge food safety risks for consumers. Cultivated meat may be a safer alternative in this regard, as it’s produced in a sterile and controlled environment.
And let’s not forget about the antibiotics used in factory farming. Right now, more than ⅔ of all the antibiotics used in the world are given to livestock, not humans. This is turning our factory farms into breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten to take hundreds of millions of human lives by the end of this century. Will lab-grown meat put an end to the overuse of antibiotics in food production and help to preserve the viability of these precious medicines for future generations of people?
Again the answer is maybe. So far, clean meat relies heavily on antibiotics to prevent bacterial contamination, as cultured muscle cells have no immune system to fight off germs. But proponents tell us that in the future, once production is scaled up to meet commercial needs, it will be automated and done in closed, sterile systems — rendering antibiotics unnecessary. Whether or not they’re right remains to be seen.
Impact on Farming & the Economy
A common argument against the transition to cultured meat and dairy is that it would be economically detrimental to farmers and brands currently producing conventional animal products. Some even go so far to say that lab meat could eradicate the meat and dairy industry — destroying hundreds of millions of jobs.
But the truth is that right now, much of the global economy is based on industries and practices that are unsustainable. The transition to cleaner, safer, healthier, and more sustainable ways of living will require massive changes in employment and lifestyle for billions of people. If a new innovation emerges that can solve problems and improve the living conditions on our planet, then shouldn’t it be one measure of a healthy society that we find a way to incorporate it, which doesn’t leave anybody out in the cold?
There are still huge questions that proponents of cultured meat are going to need to be able to answer before we can consider it any sort of a solution to the world’s problems. But if it does emerge as being of real value, or a helpful piece of the puzzle, then it also stands to reason that we may see the creation of new jobs in the process. And maybe, just maybe, the people employed in the production of new food systems will be treated better than most farm laborers and slaughterhouse workers are being treated today.
Would You Eat Food Grown in a Lab?
Chris Bryant, who researches acceptance of cultured meat at the University of Bath, says, “Acceptance of clean meat seems to vary an awful lot between surveys. Some have shown as many as two-thirds of consumers saying they would eat clean meat, while others have shown as few as 16%.” At the end of the day, cultural acceptance may hinge in large part on what the product actually is, how it’s produced, how rigorously it’s tested, and how independently it’s being studied. And, of course, how it tastes and what it costs. All of those questions remain unanswered for now.
But let’s not forget that most conventional meat products are far from natural, too. Modern factory-farmed animals are pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, fed a profoundly unnatural diet, and are victims of immense cruelty. Many also never see a blade of grass, or the light of day, in their entire miserable lives. So for those people who continue to eat meat, it seems possible that lab-grown products might provide a healthier, more sustainable, and potentially cruelty-free alternative.
The Jury Is Still Out
Still, some critics are unimpressed. They point out that proponents of lab-grown meat sound an awful lot like early advocates for GMOs. Let’s not forget that before GMOs were widely adopted, Monsanto and other biotech companies had a number of claims about how their technology would benefit the world. Yet here we are, decades later, and those promises have hardly been met. There are still nearly one billion people around the world hungry or starving.
So will cellular agriculture ultimately be another chapter in the same story? Will it be another step towards a dark dystopian future? Or will it be a breakthrough solution that helps humanity break free from cruel and unsustainable practices, and to advance into a brighter possibility for all generations to come?
Until the technology is developed and studied further, and wide-scale production begins, we can only look at projections and theories. After all, even as we consider the words of various cellular agriculture companies, they obviously have a stake (if not a steak!) in the outcome.
But one thing’s for sure: A lot of smart people are working hard to develop this technology. They stand to make a lot of money if they succeed. And one way or the other, the future of food will be impacted by what happens next.