Imagine you were given the task of producing 175 million quarter-pounder burgers, and you had two choices of how to go about it. On the one hand, you could use the existing animal agricultural system, which would require you raise, kill and process 440,000 cows to fill the order. On the other hand, you could opt for lab-grown meat, which would allow you to use tissue from one single cow.
This scenario might seem fantastical, but the nascent clean meat industry is on the cusp of providing human societies with exactly this option. Given that meat consumption is projected to skyrocket in the coming decades, that one cow solution is seeming better by the day.
While the term “lab-grown meat” suggests a realm of mad scientists bent over petri dishes, the reality is far different, less nefarious and much more innovative than many imagine. This article will dispel misconceptions and reveal the promise of the lab-grown meat industry.
What Is Lab-Grown Meat?
Quite simply, lab-grown meat is flesh grown outside of an animal’s body. It is real meat, obtained without slaughter.
Known by a plethora of different names, including clean meat, cultured meat, cellular agriculture, or in-vitro meat, this emerging sector aims to disrupt conventional ways of producing animal products, with the goal of reducing the number of animals killed for food as well as creating a more sustainable and ethical global food system.
What Is Lab-Grown Meat Made Out Of?
Lab-grown meat is composed primarily of animal cells, starting out as a biopsy taken from a living animal which is then grown into masses of cells. Samples from animals raised as livestock, including cows, chicken, rabbits, ducks, shrimp, even tuna, have been taken into labs in attempts to recreate parts of their bodies without having to raise, confine or slaughter the animals themselves.
Can Vegetarians Eat Lab Grown Meat?
Unlike plant-based meat products, which are made from materials sourced exclusively from plants (think tofu, beans or mushrooms), lab-grown meat is an animal product – which is why it is not considered a vegan food. Because lab-grown meat will require starter cells on an ongoing basis, meaning biopsies from living animals will always be required, and the fact that certain steps of the process require the killing of animals (although alternatives are currently being sought), those who abstain from eating meat may want to avoid eating these products.
For vegetarians, the issue is perhaps less clear. As with all factors going into dieting, much depends upon personal preference. While vegetarians can have a multitude of reasons for avoiding meat, a primary one is to avoid killing animals for food. These diets allow for the consumption of animal products such as dairy and eggs, since the animals may remain alive during production. However, particularly within industrial agriculture, even vegetarian-appropriate foods do, in fact, require the killing of animals. For example, many types of cheeses are made using rennet, which is curdled milk from the stomach of an unweaned calf. As rennet is a byproduct of the veal industry, it cannot be said that rennet-based cheese is a vegetarian product. Industrially-produced eggs are another sticky issue, since male chicks are killed (and often ground-up alive) within days of being born, in favor of female hens who are able to lay eggs.
For vegetarians who are aware of these issues and continue to consume animal products aside from meat, lab-grown meat may be appealing, especially since it requires the killing of far fewer animals and is undeniably more ethical. Many remain undecided, and some even call for a whole new category of those who eat exclusively lab-grown meat. Clean carnivores, perhaps?
How Do You Make Lab Grown Meat?
Essentially, lab-grown meat is created by taking the cells from an animal and growing them outside of the animal’s body. Here are the steps it takes to make slaughter-free meat.
Selection Of Starter Cells
While different companies deploy a variety of sources and techniques for obtaining starter cells, at the end of the day every lab-grown meat product begins with some kind of tissue sample. These can be taken directly from an animal (usually using local anaesthesia), from cell banks, pieces of fresh meat or other sources. The goal is to create a cell line that winds up being tasty and fast-growing.
The types of cells selected for these lines can be either primary cells, which include muscle or fat cells, or stem cells. Primary cells can be superior in that they have already finished development, and so can reproduce more of what they are. However the downside is that they do not proliferate at the same rate as other cells. Stem cells, on the other hand, are like blank slates: they can be turned into pretty much anything, based on input provided by things like proteins in the surrounding medium. Stems cells can become muscle and fat cells, and also proliferate and are much longer-lived than primary cells.
Treatment Of Growth Medium
After the cell line has been selected, the cells are placed into a petri dish and bathed in a liquid growth medium, then placed in a bioreactor where they grow and proliferate to the point of resembling meat. The growth medium is critical, as it contains a number of proteins, vitamins, sugars and amino acids that cells require in order to grow and duplicate.
Just like a pile of bricks won’t make a building, a glob of meat cells won’t turn into a steak. While “unstructured” lab-grown meat products are in development, including burgers, nuggets and sausages, the race is on to create the best scaffolding in order to make different types of realistic cuts of meat, with steak appearing to be the holy grail of this quest.
In the body, cells get mechanical support from collagen structures. One of the challenges being tackled by lab-grown meat companies is creating scaffolds that mimic collagen and other internal structures that are naturally present in meat, and that are 3D and edible. Companies have been experimenting with various techniques. Earlier attempts included hollowing-out plants such as spinach leaves and artichokes, leaving only their structure behind which cells can then be seeded onto. Another attempt saw printing long threads of starch onto LEGO pieces – yes, those same LEGO blocks you played with as a kid. Gelatin, mushroom roots and textured soy protein are also contenders to build the best, most realistic cuts of meat.
Is Lab Grown Meat Healthier? Differences From Conventional Meat
They don’t call it clean meat for nothing. For those worried about fecal matter contaminating meat, lab-grown is the way to go, since E. coli can be entirely eliminated in the laboratory and the production facilities where these products will one day be produced.
Use of antibiotics would also be eliminated, which are liberally applied particularly within Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Given that the World Health Organization sounded the alarm with a report that around 700,000 people die from drug-resistant diseases each year, with that number climbing to potentially 10 million by 2050, removing the need for antibiotic use in meat production is not only healthier – it is urgently needed.
Fat and cholesterol levels in lab-grown meat can also be controlled, leading to potentially positive health outcomes since heightened blood cholesterol levels can lead to conditions such as cardiovascular disease. Lab-grown meat can also be fortified with vitamins and minerals to deliver maximum nutrition, just like certain products are today, such as milk, cereals and bread.
While it may seem that clean meat is created within artificial conditions, it should be kept in mind that lab-grown meat is actual meat – and can therefore be less artificial than products like pink slime. While lab-grown meat is today produced in a lab, this won’t always be the case. As commercial production ramps up, these products will be created in commercial-grade facilities, making its fabrication similar to that of the existing food supply.
Between 2011 and 2050, the global demand for meat is expected to increase by nearly 73%. If conventional meat production remains as it is today, there will not be enough arable land left on Earth to furnish this enormous demand. Currently, thousands of acres in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, home to numerous Indigenous nations and referred to as the lungs of the planet, are being burned and cleared to make way for cows to produce meat – much of which, it should be noted, is destined for American markets. One of lab-grown meat’s biggest environmental bonuses is it’s land use, given that it requires 95% less of it. Lab-grown meat production could theoretically free up millions of acres of land currently dedicated to cattle-ranching, as well as land dedicated to growing the crops fed to cattle and other livestock.
Another potentially huge boon from lab-grown meat relates to climate change. Roughly a quarter of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions driving the global climate chaos come from agriculture, and beef production is among the worst offenders. Cattle emit high levels of methane and nitrous oxide from flatulence and manure. Clean meat could see a net benefit to emissions, with some estimates pegging reductions between 74% to 87%.
There are a few ethical considerations to lab-grown meat. One of the primary and undeniable benefits is the drastic decrease in slaughter required. However, starter cells will always necessitate samples taken from living animals, who will never be able to give their consent. Clean meat also fails to trouble the idea that animals are merely resources for humans to exploit. Making lab-grown meat available also reinforces the idea that people can, and should, continue to eat meat, despite the fact that this is biologically unnecessary for good health, as evidenced by the billions of people around the world who eat plant-based diets.
In March 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced an agreement to oversee lab-grown meat. Labelling laws remain a contentious issue, with conventional meat producers arguing that the definition of “meat” should explicitly exclude lab-grown meat, despite the fact that it is, in fact, real meat. Restricting labelling in this way could lead to consumer confusion and even health concerns, since people with meat allergies may not be able to properly discern between meat and non-meat products. While states are enacting laws pertaining to “truth in labelling”, federal legislation may ultimately supersede these in favor of lab-grown meat.
Opinion remains divided on whether lab-grown meat has a place within certain religious diets. Within the Islamic community, lab-grown meat can potentially be considered halal as long as the cells used in the culturing process come from an animal who was alive and healthy; and if slaughter happens, that it be conducted according to the appropriate standards. Blood must not be used during the culturing process, since halal meat must be completely drained of blood in order to remain clean. Nor should animal-based serum come in contact with the cell culture, since this may render it unclean.
Concerning Hinduism, the cow is considered sacred and certain sects prohibit the consumption of beef in any form, in which cases lab-grown meat would therefore be off the table. Among Hindus who do consume beef, however, lab-grown meat would be permissible.
Rabbinical opinion is divided regarding the Jewish religion. According to some interpretations, the cultivation process enables the biopsied cells to lose their original identity, and therefore cannot be defined as forbidden for consumption. Also, as with halal meat, lab-grown meat could be considered Kosher as long as the original cells were taken from an animal slaughtered according to Kosher regulations.
The potential total addressable market for lab-grown meat is huge, and as the technology improves, investors are gaining confidence in the industry. In January 2020, Memphis Meats raised $161 million in a Series B fundraising round – a sum which exceeds all publicly disclosed investments into lab-grown meat to date. The investment was hailed as a turning point for the meat industry.
Contributing to this confidence are the big names investing in lab-grown meat companies, including Bill Gates and Richard Branson, and conventional meat companies themselves such as Tyson Foods and Cargill.
Consumer acceptance of lab-grown meat faces hurdles, as opinions tend to be diverse about this emerging sector. The way people respond to these products will differ according to a variety of factors, and much will depend on education and eradicating misconceptions. One study suggested that the more people learn about lab-grown meat, the more likely they were to support it.
Regardless, consumer acceptance of lab-grown meat is tied up within broader moral conversations around perceptions and acceptance of the social and environmental impacts of the meat industry on the whole. These issues themselves can be polarizing, swayed by political convictions, and based on exposure to education.
Will Lab Grown Meat Replace Traditional Meat?
Already in grocery stores around the world, new plant-based alternatives to traditional animal products are lining the shelves, and flying off of them. Ideas that might have seemed outlandish a decade ago are commonplace today. Plant-based milks made out of almonds, oats, and coconuts; non-dairy yogurts and soy-based cream cheeses; pizzas with seitan sausage slices and shredded, melty vegan cheese. With so many new-fangled products being readily accepted and embraced by the public, the road towards lab-grown meat faring well against traditional meat looks somewhat rosy.
Particularly among younger generations with a greater stake in the future regarding climate change, or who have been exposed to messaging about the cruelties taking place on factory farms, clean meat may make a strong, and even unshakeable appearance in the years to come.
How Much Does Lab Grown Meat Cost?
In 2013, the company Mosa Meats famously delivered the world’s first lab-grown hamburger, costing over $300,000 and taking two years to create. Fortunately, prices have been coming down. In 2020, the company JUST produced a chicken nugget which costs roughly $50 to make – still a far cry from any number of fast-food establishments selling, say, ten for $5. Recently, Mosa Meat estimated that its burgers, costing around $10, could be hitting shelves as early as 2021.
Lab-Grown Meat Companies
There are over 40 companies dedicated to producing lab-grown meat. Among the most well-known are Mosa Meats, Shiok Meats, JUST, Memphis Meats, Aleph Farms, BluNalu, and Finless Foods, representing steak, seafood, tuna, chicken, duck and more. For a glance into the companies and the industry, check out The Good Food Institute’s State of the Industry Report.
One research challenge for lab-grown meat companies is to find a growth medium serum that isn’t animal-based. One commonly-used serum is known as Bovine Fetal Serum, or FBS. Taken from the blood of fetal calves, this product is critical for the growth and development of starter cells, and is a big part of what makes lab-grown meat so expensive. It is currently produced by biotech companies as a high-cost, low volume product; however, with increasing demand from the lab-grown meat industry, there is concern that companies may begin to scale up – potentially resulting in the killing of a great number of pregnant mothers and unborn calves.
Across the board, however, clean meat companies are racing to find serums that aren’t animal based, including those that are made from algae or fungal extracts.
History of Lab-Grown Meat
Back in 1931, Winston Churchill predicted the advent of lab-grown meat, writing in an essay that “[w]e 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.” It took 66 years for the patents to begin rolling in. Willem Van Eelen was the first to claim the idea of lab-grown meat for human consumption in 1997, followed a year later by a similar patent filed by a man (somewhat appropriately) named John Vein.
Ever since, there have been key milestones, including NASA experimentations with turkey cells in 2001, a goldfish fillet developed in 2002, and a burger served in 2013 costing over $300,000. But this industry is still only beginning, and the future looks bright.
Lab-grown meat has the potential to forever change the way people eat meat. There could come a time when the thought of factory farms and vast slaughterhouses are met with the revulsion they arguably deserve. Indeed, if clean meat fails to deliver on its promises, the world will have great difficulty meeting demand. This is why, for those interested in a healthier, kinder, and more sustainable world, clean meat is the way to go.
Laura is a published fiction & nonfiction author. Her essay on Western dominator identity is featured in The Routledge Handbook of Ecocultural Identity.