How To Explain Lab-Grown Meat Simply (For People Who Aren’t Scientists)

The most common questions about cultivated meat, answered in plain English.

Cultivated meat sausage

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Winston Churchill once wrote that in the future, “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” Churchill was arguably predicting and describing lab-grown meat (or cultivated or cultured meat, as the burgeoning industry and activists are trying to rebrand it). Almost a century after Churchill made his prediction, it’s almost here. Over the last decade, the science of lab-grown meat has made striking advancements, and has the potential to fundamentally change how humans eat and produce food.

But if you’re not a scientist, it can be difficult to know how to understand or explain lab-grown meat. Here are the basics, and a few common misconceptions about cultivated meat, debunked.

Why Is Lab-Grown Meat Better for Animals and the  Environment?

The Short Answer:

Lab-grown meat offers a potential way to feed our appetite for meat without inflicting so much damage on animals and the environment. If it’s able to be produced cheaply at scale — still a big “if” at this point — it’s a product that could eventually eliminate factory farming, methane from cows and other pollution, save water and limit deforestation.

The Longer Answer:

Make no mistake: most humans these days like eating meat. Between 1961 and 2020, the average person’s yearly meat consumption almost doubled, according to Our World In Data, from around 50 pounds to 92 pounds. In the United States, the average person eats a staggering 280 pounds of meat per year.

But there are a number of serious environmental and ethical issues with the meat industry as it currently exists, and lab-grown meat was created in hopes of overcoming them.

Perhaps the most obvious is the pain and suffering inflicted on animals in order to produce meat. The list is too long to recount in full here, but in factory farms, where at least 94 percent of livestock is raised, most of the animals are mutilated, dismembered and separated from their parents as a matter of procedure. They are crammed into confined spaces barely bigger than their bodies, forced to live in their own feces and slaughtered in gruesome ways without anesthetic.

Over 100 billion animals die in factory farms every year. For many, that’s reason enough to transition away from eating meat. But it’s not the only reason.

The meat industry also takes a staggering toll on the environment. Livestock production accounts for around 14 percent of all greenhouse gasses and 37 percent of all methane emissions, according to the United Nations. The meat industry is the driving force behind deforestation around the world, most notably in the Amazon, and industrially grown feed crops are responsible for decades of topsoil erosion, a serious problem that has the potential to cause catastrophic food shortages within decades.

How Exactly Is Lab-Grown Meat Made?

The Short Answer:

Lab-grown meat is made by extracting a single cell from an animal and placing it into a solution with nutrients that cause the cell to multiply and develop into muscle tissue. Once enough tissue has been formed, it’s removed and shaped into a nugget, burger or other meat product.

The Longer Answer:

Unlike plant-based meat replacements, lab-grown meat is actual, bona fide meat. What sets it apart from traditional meat is that you don’t have to slaughter billions of animals to get it.

The process begins by extracting a single stem cell from a living animal — a cow, for instance. Stem cells are unspecialized, which means that they have the ability to develop into any other type of cell (muscle, fat, etc.). That single stem cell is then placed into a broth with nutrients and proteins that cause the cell to develop and multiply; this process is called culturing, and the nutrient broth is commonly referred to as growth medium. The stem cell and growth medium are collectively placed in a bioreactor that creates the necessary atmospheric and temperature conditions for growth.

That’s the gist of the process, but there are some more nuances and complications that are important to note. For instance, although growing muscle tissue is sufficient to recreate a chicken nugget or ground beef (often made with some plant-based ingredients in the mix), some companies also want to recreate meat products that have structure and visible fat in them — a cut of steak, for instance. To accomplish this, they place the stem cells into a different growth medium that allows some of the cells to grow into muscle and others to become fat, a process known as co-differentiation.

Additionally, there are several different ways of shaping muscle tissue into the final meat product. For highly processed foods like chicken nuggets or hot dogs, it can be sufficient to simply mold the muscle tissue into the shape of the product in question. For meat products with more complex textures and compositions, such as steak, a 3-D printer is often used instead, as this allows manufacturers to specify and fine-tune the compositional properties of the meat.

What Are the Benefits of Lab-Grown Meat?

The Short Answer:

One of the biggest benefits of lab-grown meat is that it can be made without killing any animals. There’s also good preliminary evidence that it will require less land and water, and create fewer emissions, than traditional meat.

The Longer Answer:

Cultured meat has two primary appeals: It’s better for animals, and it’s better for the environment. There are some potential health benefits for humans as well; animals on factory farms are given massive doses of antibiotics, which have the side effect of creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can infect humans.

While the traditional meat industry slaughters 55 billion animals a year (in the U.S. alone), lab-grown meat requires nothing more than a prick of the needle to extract a stem cell, a process that’s usually performed with anesthesia. In theory, this means that it can be produced without causing any pain to any animals — a clear and obvious upside to anybody who cares about animal welfare.

The environmental impact is a bit more complicated. Most studies have found that lab-grown meat, when scaled to a commercial capacity, will likely produce fewer emissions and require less land and water to make than traditional meat. A 2021 analysis commissioned by the Good Food Institute concluded that if lab-grown meat companies use sustainable energy at their production facilities, the carbon footprint will be 92 percent lower for beef, 52 percent lower for pork and 17 percent lower for chicken.

One highly-publicized study from 2023 came to the opposite conclusion about lab-grown meat’s environmental impact. However, that study hasn’t been peer-reviewed, and its findings were based on the assumption that lab-grown meat will require pharmaceutical-grade ingredients — an assumption that cultured meat companies strenuously deny.

Does Lab-Grown Meat Hurt Animals?

The Short Answer:

The initial development of lab-grown meat often utilizes something called Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS), which requires the slaughter of a cow. Companies are aggressively searching for cruelty-free alternatives to this, and some have already removed it from their process entirely.

The Longer Answer:

While lab-grown meat is the best shot we have of eliminating the suffering of animals in factory farms, there remains  the thorny issue of fetal bovine serum (FBS). One of the most important parts of the lab-grown meat process is finding the right ingredients for the growth medium in which the cells are cultured. The broth needs to have the precise mixture of vitamins, sugars, proteins and nutrients needed to culture the cells into meat, and it just so happens that one of the most efficient ingredients to help accomplish this is FBS.

What’s FBS? It’s blood from a cow fetus that’s collected when a pregnant heifer is slaughtered.

You can see why this is a problem. One of the core and immutable appeals of lab-grown meat — one of the primary motivations behind its creation — is that it doesn’t involve the killing of any animals. If it can’t be made without slaughtering a pregnant cow, one of its biggest selling points goes right out the window. In addition, FBS is very expensive — a single liter can cost up to $1,000, according to Mother Jones — and that’s one of the biggest reasons why it’s so costly to produce lab-grown meat.

Can Lab-Grown Meat Ever Be as Cheap as Factory Farming?

The Short Answer:

Lab-grown meat is currently far more expensive to produce than factory farmed meat. That said, the technology is still in its infancy, and companies are working to figure out cost-effective ways to eventually produce affordable lab-grown meat at scale.

The Longer Answer:

Environmentalists and animal welfare activists are optimistic about the potential of lab-grown meat, but you don’t have to take their word for it: Tyson Foods and JBS, the two largest meat producers in the world, have both invested heavily in multiple lab-grown meat companies. The fact that the traditional meat industry is putting its money behind cultured meat is one the biggest indicators that it’s here to stay.

However, the technology is still in its infancy, and needs to overcome a few hurdles before becoming viable as a mainstream consumer good.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is cost. The first-ever lab-grown burger, unveiled in 2013, cost an astonishing $325,000 to create. Over the next two years, producers were able to bring the cost down to a much more reasonable $11.36 per patty; while that’s a significant improvement, it’s still almost five times the cost of producing a traditional beef patty, according to data from the US Department of Agriculture.

Lab-grown meat also faces a scaling problem. Currently, the bioreactors used to create it have a collective fermentation capacity of between 10 and 20 million liters. Producing enough lab-grown meat to capture even one percent of the global protein market would require between 220 and 440 million liters of fermentation capacity, according to a 2021 analysis by McKinsey. Scaling the infrastructure to this level would require billions in investments, McKinsey found. Raising billions of dollars isn’t an impossible task, of course, but it’s not an effortless one, either.

A number of cultivated meat companies went out of business in 2023, and investment dollars are no longer as free-flowing as they once were. That new financial reality, along with skeptical media coverage and a “murky” PR effort to discredit the product, do raise doubt about the future of cultivated meat.

Is Lab Grown Meat Coming Soon?

The Short Answer:

Lab-grown meat is still a new technology, and as with all new technologies, its creators are still ironing out some of the kinks before introducing it to the mainstream. There’s no question that in order for it to be viable, production costs will need to come down, and that will require significant investment and research.

Nevertheless, signs suggest that lab-grown meat is here to stay, and may be the best hope we have at eliminating factory farming — and its devastation of the environment and animals.

The Longer Answer:

Despite the challenges of low-cost scaling — and the aforementioned skeptical culture around the idea of lab-grown meat — major players in the industry remain confident about the future for a number of reasons.

For one, although FBS is an efficient growth medium for cultured cells, it’s not the only way to grow meat in a lab. One alternative is recombinant proteins, which are created by combining DNA from different organisms. With the correct engineering, recombinant proteins can stimulate cell growth the same way FBS does; unfortunately, recombinant proteins are currently too expensive to be a viable growth medium for cultured meat.

But there’s another alternative that’s more promising, and that’s Essential 8, an animal-free concoction used in the pharmaceutical industry that also works as a growth medium for cultured meat cells. It currently costs $378 per liter, which is prohibitively expensive (but still less than half of what FBS costs). However, an independent analysis by Protein Report found that the cost of Essential 8 could be reduced to less than a dollar per liter through various optimization methods, such as manufacturing it in-house and tweaking the formula.

If companies are able to manufacture a cost-effective version of Essential 8 and use it at scale, that will allow lab-grown meat to be made without any animal deaths at any point in the process. Just as importantly, it will dramatically drive down the cost of producing cultured meat. Protein Report’s analysis found that a cost-effective version of Essential 8 could bring down the cost of lab-grown beef to just $3 per pound. By contrast, the average production cost for traditional beef is currently $16 per pound.

Investors have thrown more than $2.8 billion behind the technology, including $896 million in 2022 alone. In 2023, the U.S. approved the sale of cultured meat in restaurants for the first time, and government funding for the new technology continues to gain steam.

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