Could Meat That Has Been Grown in a Lab Change the Way we Eat Food?
Imagine a world where no animal had to suffer the pain and indignity of the industrial farming system-a world where those who would never consider a meat-free lifestyle could feast on steaks, pork chops and bacon-without any animals ever facing the abattoir. One scientist claims this world is just a few years away-a world where lab-grown meat will replace the flesh of slaughtered animals.
Lab-grown meat-also referred to as cultured, bio, victimless, in-vitro and cruelty-free meat-is manufactured by scientists through tissue-engineering technology. It is grown in an artificial environment rather than harvested from animals. In theory, thousands of pounds of meat could be produced from a small sample of living tissue.
Mark Post is a professor of physiology at Maastricht University. He says: “Cultured meat, when successful in terms of resource-efficiency, cost-effectiveness and consumer acceptance, will replace livestock meat. It will be readily available in five to seven years and assuming it is more resource-efficient, and not very labour intensive, the price will come down to that of livestock meat or dive under it-though that will take at least seven years.”
Prof Post created the first lab-grown patty in 2013 creating a burger that looked and felt like its animal-based counterpart. Crucially the burger, which was launched at a press conference in 2013, lacked authentic flavour. In addition it cost around $300,000. But according to the professor, based on the expected up-scaling of production in the next few years, the calculated price of producing an edible burger could fall to around US$11.
Future Food is an Austrian-based company that shares information about alternatives to animal-derived products. The group wants to accelerate research into lab-cultured meat. According to Future Food: “The aim is to bring an end to animal suffering, environmental pollution, starvation, health risks and so on, by no longer using billions of domestic animals as meat, milk and egg machines, and to replace these products with ones which are healthier and are produced via more environmentally friendly and ethical means.”
Leading the group is Dr Kurt Schmidimger who has authored the dissertation Worldwide Alternatives to Animal Derived Foods – Overview and Evaluation Models. He says: ““Today’s practices of producing animals for food severely impair the welfare of billions of farm animals globally. Livestock population continues to increase rapidly and animal production globally is becoming ever more industrialized.
“At the beginning of 2010, an estimated 27 billion animals were being kept as livestock globally, with 66 billion slaughtered each year around the globe. This exceeds the number of human inhabitants on the globe almost by an order of magnitude. If no provisions are undertaken to avoid further growth in the livestock sector, meat production is forecasted to rise to 465 million tons by 2050 and milk production to 1043 million tonnes.
“The production of meat, milk and eggs through the use of animals puts far more strain on the environment than other kinds of food production. Cultured meat could have financial, health, animal welfare and environmental advantages over traditional meat. The idea is to produce animal meat, but without using an animals.”
If cultured meat is more ethical and environmentally-friendly, as well as being as tasty in the future, what could stop it becoming the go-to option for omnivores desperate for that fleshy protein hit?
Professor Keith Belk, is professor of meat safety and quality in the department of animal sciences at the US’s Colorado State University and holder of the Ken & Myra Monfort endowed chair. He has claimed he’s not sure lab-grown meat could replace animal product-due to consumer reaction. He told one food journalist: “I am sceptical not because I question the ability to produce protein in this fashion, but because I believe that it will be a difficult sell to consumers. Consider the number of consumers that are more concerned with local and sustainable production today, the growing demand for organic and natural production practices, the fear of [genetically modified organisms], and all other trends in our modern society. Are people that are continually more concerned with method of production also likely to purchase cultured meat products?”
Dr Schmidimger tells Vegan Life: “I see this as number two of the biggest challenges for cultured meat. Number one is the question, if it ever will be possible to produce cultured meat at a competitive price to replace meat from industrial farming. But consumer acceptance is a huge obstacle, too. The European Commission conducted a special Eurobarometer in 2005 including the question whether growing meat from cell cultures as an alternative to slaughtering farm animals would be acceptable for EU citizens.
“The results shown in this survey indicate that – without huge media work or information efforts – cultured meat would face much scepticism and resistance, at least in Europe.
“What people do not have in mind when bashing cultured meat is the unnaturalness of industrial livestock farming. I’d really like to discuss the unnaturalness of cultured meat in a typical factory farm where the meat that the same people consider “natural” comes from. If you stick to the facts, cultured meat could be a progressive step in terms of health, animal welfare and ecology compared to what we currently do. But yes, these efforts at persuasion will have to be done if cultured meat becomes reality one day.”
So if Dr Schmidimger sees the price being the biggest obstacle, when does he expect it to match the price tags on conventional meat products? “Hard to say, the technical challenges are quite massive, but the economic difficulties to compete with industrial farmed meat are even bigger, as already mentioned.
“So it is not only a question of “when”, but also a question of “if”. Prof Mark Post and his team obviously presented the first in-vitro-meat burger in London in summer 2013, Memphis Meats presented cultured meat balls in early 2016, so parts of the technology are available, but many issues are still open, e.g. a plant based, affordable culture medium for growing the cells.
“So, I really cannot predict when cultured meat burgers or even cultured steaks will be available at an affordable price. That’s one reason why projects like our futurefood.org or The Good Food Institute promote different strategies to replace animal products in parallel – including plant based alternatives to meat, dairy and eggs! With many parallel strategies the chances to get rid of industrial factory farming can be optimized, and we do not rely on the success or failure of one strategy like cultured meat.”
Lab meat offers more benefits than saving animals from factory farming hell. As we report in this issue of Vegan Life, the misuse of antibiotics in agriculture is part the issue when it comes to creating antibiotic-resistant disease. But it is not the only health benefit. “Of course, if we can produce cultured meat, we should do it without using antibiotics, and thus the risk of antibiotic-resistant germs would be reduced globally,” says Dr Schmidimger.
“That is one of many, many reasons why we really need to get away from industrial livestock practices. But there are many other problems that could be solved or abated if we skip industrial livestock practices, the list is extremely long, so just a few examples here: The risk of the new global pandemics would be reduced drastically, the number of animals abused and killed would diminish by many orders of magnitude, water pollution, water consumption, area demand, soil erosion, rainforest destruction, climate change, loss of biodiversity – all that could be massively mitigated. And as cultured meat could be designed in a way to avoid the health hazards of conventional meat, e.g. by replacing saturated fatty acids and cholesterol with high omega-3-contents, we could fight lifestyle diseases.
“People might retort that we could as well skip livestock without cultured meat or vegetarian alternatives to animal products, but is that realistic? I’m 100 per cent sure these replacement products make such a transition much more realistic than trying to get rid of animal products on our plates without similar alternatives at all.”
How is cultured meat produced?
Starter cells are taken from live animals in a process described as ‘painless’. The cells are cultured with nutrients and growth-promoting chemicals to help them multiply. Three weeks later there are millions of stem cells, which combine into small strips of muscle, the strips are then layered together, coloured and mixed with fat.
While it sounds simple, it’s a painstaking process to produce even a small amount of beef, which involves careful precision. Professor Mark Post claims any type of meat (including mammals, birds, and fish) can be grown in vitro. However, for commercial purposes, beef is currently the best target.
According to Dr Kurt Schmidimger: “Producing cultured meat for processed meat products, such as sausages, burgers and nuggets will be easier to develop, whereas cultured meat, which should be more highly structured, such as for an in-vitro steak, is considerably more of a challenge. A steak is made of muscle tissue, in which extremely fine, long capillaries transport blood and nutrients directly to the cells. It is much more difficult to reproduce such a complex structure than it is to put together the small balls of cells which grow to larger balls of cells, which in turn become in-vitro chicken nuggets.”
Would vegans eat lab meat?
Toni Shepard, Executive Director at Animal Equality
My own personal opinion is that I wouldn’t eat it, because I haven’t eaten meat in nearly 30 years, so I doubt I would find it appetising. I have no ethical obligation to eating it, or to anyone else eating it, if it did not cause animal suffering. For me veganism is about making dietary choices that cause the least harm to other animals, not about strict rules on what I put in my body. Providing the lab-grown meat is manufactured and produced in a moral and humane way, there should be no ethical implications that hinder vegans/vegetarians wanting to try the meat if they so wish.
Tony Wardle, Associate Director at Viva!
The first thing we have to really establish is that veganism isn’t a cult, it’s not a religion, we do what we do to try and save animals. If bio meat is going to save animals from suffering – currently 80 per cent of all animals live in factory farms – my own perspective is that it has to be a good thing. There are 70 billion animals slaughtered every year so if it’s going to save those animals from suffering then that’s great. In regards to consuming it myself, if I was satisfied with how it was obtained then I would certainly try it.
In an ideal world, I would prefer if people weaned themselves off the concept of eating meat entirely but really I just want to save the animals and this solution is most definitely on the way to doing just that
Elisa Allen, Associate Director of PETA
In vitro meat will spell the end of lorries full of cows and chickens, abattoirs and factory farming. It will reduce carbon emissions, conserve water and make food supply safer.
Of course, fantastic, tasty mock meats exist already in the form of fake bacon, meat-free chicken patties, mock lobster and various veggie burgers – from nuts and soya to beans and grain – which offer the taste of meat without a scintilla of the cholesterol or cruelty. But lab-grown meat will ultimately provide people who were addicted from childhood to the saturated fat in flesh with the ‘methadone’ for their habit.
Aine Carlin, Vegan Chef and Cook Book Author
I’m open to all new vegan products but it would probably be on an occasional basis, as I prefer to stick to wholefoods. It seems like it would fall into the processed food category and I personally try to limit my consumption of those. In my experience, it’s simply the texture of meat that people miss most and this could be a very useful tool indeed.