What is Lab-Grown Meat?
Ten years ago, bioengineered meat sounded like the stuff of science fiction. Fast-forward to 2021: the British Prime Minister is discussing it as a viable food source, as are food technologists at COP26. In November, Upside Foods opened the world’s most advanced cell-based meat facility in California. In laboratory agriculture, the original animal cells are taken from a range of sources: biopsies from living animals, eggs, fishing, or recently slaughtered animals who were already a part of the food system. A cell feeds on nutrients that resemble what develops naturally in an animal’s body. These nutrients (vitamins, amino acids, sugars and trace minerals) can come from plant cells, and the product is created in steel bioreactors.
The Definitional Debate
There are many different terms for the relatively new concept: cell-based, cultivated, cultured, in vitro, synthetic and lab-grown. As the possibilities of products hitting our shelves become more likely, developers consider which name sounds most appealing for consumers. In vitro is simply unappetising, and cultured may be too reminiscent of yoghurt. The traditional meat industry may try to lobby against their technological competition, just as EU farmers attempted to ban plant-based products from using meat-related terms like burger and sausage. In general, industry specialists favour less emotive terms, such as cell-based and cultivated meat.
The first cellular agriculture creation was a synthetic burger patty, pioneered in 2013.
Cell-based agriculture took its next major step in becoming commercially available in 2020. Eat Just debuted its ‘no-kill’ chicken nugget to a members-only restaurant in Singapore.
Currently, over 80 companies worldwide are developing laboratory replicas of meat, from ribeye steak to the endangered Bluefin tuna. Australian cultivated-meat company Vow, see an opportunity to push the boundaries of technology further. Founder George Peppou likens the situation to the difference between craft beer and commodity lager. Though he believes cultured meat will become the cheaper option in a few decades, ‘you won’t be buying cultured chicken breast at $3 per serve. Not for some time at least.’ Peppou suggests that his products could become more nutritious and tastier than traditional proteins. He envisions products with more bioavailable iron or collagen, or with a higher-quality texture and taste than factory-farmed meat. Their first creation was a cell-based kangaroo dumpling, served in April 2019.
There are several perceived benefits of lab-grown meat:
- It uses less land. Upside Foods argues that once production is scaled upwards, lab-based proteins may use up to 90% less water and land, and emit up to 90% fewer greenhouse gases. Land formerly used for crops to feed livestock could be redeveloped for carbon capture purposes.
- For many, it removes the ethical problems that animal slaughter and environmentally destructive farming conjure up.
- Superior working conditions to factory farming. On average, two amputations a week are suffered by US meat plant workers.
- Lab-grown meat swerves the problems of overuse of antibiotics and bacterial contamination of farmed meat. This may limit the risk of new outbreaks of zoonotic viruses – such as avian flu, swine flu, and coronaviruses. Reports of fast-spreading bird flu are already alarming poultry farms across Europe and Asia this winter.
Will We See Lab-Based Meat on Our Shelves?
Several factors determine the future of cultured meat: regulatory approval, demand, investment, and the technology to both expand product possibilities and scale-up production. Developers have spent the last decade proving that the technology exists – the next step is translating this success into consumer desire. Singapore remains the only country to allow the sale of cell-based meat.
Would People Eat It?
My main concern was that an animal would still have to die for the initial creation of the lab-grown meat. However, the cells used to create Eat Just’s lab-grown nuggets did not entail this, as cells can be taken from live animals without harm to the creature.
Attitudes often vary by age, as younger consumers seem to be more open to the idea of lab-grown meat. Leading developers say that cost and carbon emissions would decrease when operations are scaled up to produce on an industrial scale. According to the Guardian, this could be accomplished by mimicking the US government’s strategy to industrialise farming a century ago. Substantial government investment in public universities and labs would accelerate research and development.
It’s argued that the high levels of processing in large steel vats can be off-putting to consumers. Critics paint dystopian visions of corporate giants feeding populations with fake meat. Jan Dutkiewicz and Gabriel N Rosenberg argue that this describes the meat industry in its current form. The most popular meat in the US, chicken nuggets are not primarily meat, composed of mostly fat, bone, nerve and connective tissue. Chicken nugget production is monopolised by a handful of massive corporations that have committed a list of social and ecological ills.
The CEO of Upside Foods believes the technological acceleration we are witnessing in the production of cell-based meat is unprecedented in the food industry. Another industry pioneer, Steve Myrick of Memphis Meats, anticipates his products entering the mainstream in the next decade or two. To feed the world’s population, he envisions lab-grown meat as part of a toolkit, alongside plant-based meat alternatives and existing protein sources that lie in conventional meat and plants. There is a willingness to change demonstrated by the popularity of plant-based food, which perhaps indicates that more people will be receptive to the idea of no-cruelty meat. A third of Brits now regularly consume plant-based milk. Experts believe this is a sign that consumers are increasingly concerned about environmental, ethical, and health issues – cell-based meat may satisfy these concerns.
Megan is an editor and content creator with a love for beauty, fitness, reading and cooking.