Do you care about the food system? Take part in our Annual Survey 2024

Take the survey
The Future

Cultured Meat: Better Than The Real Thing?

Some 60+ start-ups across the globe claim that they will soon be selling cultured meat grown in a lab, which tastes just as good as that from farmed livestock. What is this lab-grown meaty-alternative? And is it the planet-saving, cruelty-free product it is purported to be?

Cultured Meat: What Is It?

Often known as ‘lab-grown meat’, ‘in-vitro meat’, ‘synthetic meat’ and even ‘clean meat’, cultured meat is a novel alternative to conventional farmed meat. In essence, it is an animal-based product closely resembling the meat that a majority of Western populations know and love, but with one key difference, it’s grown in a lab as opposed to a field.

Rather than rearing animals and sending them to slaughter, a muscle sample is taken from the animal (this can be any animal, with current favourites being cows, chickens and pigs), from which stem cells are extracted. These are proliferated and then allowed to differentiate into muscle fibres. When in great enough mass, these fibres will form whole muscle tissue, much like what we would obtain from farmed livestock. This can then be manipulated – by adding fats, flavours, and physical shaping – to try and replicate the type of meats we see on supermarket shelves today.1

Why Grow Meat in a Lab?

Current meat production methods have resulted in a significant decline in the nutritional value of meat, an increase in food-borne diseases and a devastating depletion of natural resources. On top of this, current meat production processes are believed to be a main contributor to near-irreversible environmental damage through pollution, deforestation and various greenhouse gas emissions. Should they continue on their current trajectory, by 2050 the meat and dairy industries will overtake fossil fuels as the most polluting in the world.2

A number of studies have recently reported that the single most significant way we, as individuals and consumers can lessen our load on the planet is to eat more vegetarian or even vegan foods. As such, many more people are following trends such as Meat-free Monday and ‘Veganuary’ or moving towards a plant-based diet altogether. Further adding to the demand for alternative protein sources is a growing movement of people choosing to eschew animal products altogether on ethical grounds and concerns for animal welfare.

So-called clean meat kills both of these birds with a single stone. By growing edible flesh from just a cluster of regenerative cells, we could potentially have a readily reproducible product that tastes just as good while boasting the same nutritional value as its conventionally farmed counterpart. All of this at a drastically lower cost to the environment, and the animal in question.1

Reality Check: Is 'Clean Meat' Really Better Than Beef?

One of the companies leading this ‘cleaner meat’ movement claims that a single bovine tissue sample could yield up to 80,000 quarter pounders. In contrast, a single cow reared and killed for conventional beef would yield around 200kg of meat and would thus be able to produce around 1000 burgers of the same size. Assuming this, a single tissue sample could generate the same amount of meat as 80 cows.3

Based on those numbers alone, it would be hard not to see the ethical benefit of lab meat in favour of that farmed in the field. Unfortunately, that is not the whole story. The process of proliferation and differentiation from a single stem cell to a cluster of muscle fibres does not just happen. Instead, a strict set of controlled conditions are required to encourage such growth and transformation and prevent the cells from developing into another tissue type altogether or from simply dying in the petri dish.

Most of these growth factors and stimulants are currently derived from foetal bovine serum (FBS). FBS is an enriched sample of blood taken from the deceased foetuses aborted from slaughtered beef or dairy cattle.4 Thus, whilst the meat itself has not come from an intensively farmed and inhumanely slaughtered animal directly, until researchers identify an alternative means of encouraging the relevant growth and differentiation without relying on FBS, cultured meat will likely fail to meet the ethical standards of those opting not to eat meat on the grounds of animal welfare.

The Environmental Cost of Lab-Grown Meat

Whilst the greenhouse emissions from animal agriculture are thought to account for around one-quarter of our total emissions, research conducted by the Oxford Martin School in 2018 and later by the Livestock Environment and People Programme (LEAP) found that lab-grown meat might not be as clean as it seems. In fact, lab-grown meats may even result in a greater warming effect on the planet in the long run compared to conventional farming approaches.5,6

One of the major concerns surrounding cattle farming is the excessive methane production from the animals. Methane is a significantly more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide; In the first two decades following its release, methane is estimated to be 84 times more warming than carbon dioxide.7 With just a fraction of the number of cattle required to produce the same amount of meat, the methane emissions will indeed be greatly reduced. The problem, however, lies in the fact that the lab-growing process is still hugely energy intensive. Unless the laboratories and factories switch from being powered by renewables as opposed to the conventional carbon-based energy sources on which they are currently entirely reliant, the carbon dioxide emitted will remain in the atmosphere hundreds of years beyond that of methane, potentially leading to a greater warming effect overall.5,6

Is It Worth It?

With the ability to replicate livestock-derived meat more accurately than any other product on the market, lab-grown alternatives certainly have the potential to revolutionise our consumption habits. But until the issues relating to ethics and energy are overcome, lab-grown meat will fail to fill the gap in the market for which it has been designed. That being said, many companies developing these products have pledged to move towards renewable energies in the future, and one of the most significant areas of research in this field is focused on developing an animal-free alternative to FBS. One thing the companies are less explicit about, however, is when and where they plan to launch their products. Thus, whilst we might be just two steps away from being able to buy lab-grown, cruelty-free, planet-friendly animal products, whether this will be in 2 or 20 years remains unclear.

Annual audience survey

Do you careabout thefood system?

Take part in our Annual Survey 2024

Take the survey

Related articles

Most viewed

The Future

Lab-Grown Meat, the Idea That (almost) Changed the World

Inés Oort Alonso

Cultured meat promised to revolutionise agriculture, but just like the science behind lab-grown meat…

The Future

Cultured Meat: Better Than The Real Thing?

Lottie Bingham

Some 60+ start-ups across the globe claim that they will soon be selling cultured meat grown in a…

Earth First

How Forgotten Crops Help Combat Climate Change

Luke Cridland

Agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, with 18.4% of global greenhouse…

The Future

Allergens in food

Madhura Rao

What do prawns, celery, peanuts, soybeans, and wheat have in common? They can cause serious allergic…

The Future

Top 9 Food Trends in 2019

Oliver Fredriksson

Growing climate change awareness, digitalisation and an increasingly health-conscious society have…

Earth First

Farming For Gender Equality | Agroecology in Practice

Emily Payne

Small-scale farming communities across the world are using agroecology to simultaneously tackle food…

The Future

What does CRISPR-Cas9 do?

Marie Lödige

Did you ever think there could be ‘drama’ in science? Well, then let me tell you a bit…

The Future

COVID-19: How UK Food Production Is Adapting

Molly Melvin

As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on food industries worldwide, causing the closure of businesses, slowing…

The Future

Milk Production | What Really Drives the Price of Milk?

Katharina Kropshofer

More milk, fewer farmers and a sinking demand - discover why has the price of milk been falling, and…

The Future

Farming The Food Chain | Low Trophic Aquaculture

Oliver Fredriksson

If I said ‘seafood’ to you, what springs to mind? Chances are ‘low trophic’…

The Future

Is it time to withdraw the Common Agricultural Policy? | Opinion

Inés Oort Alonso

A disappointing vote for the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) took away our hope for…

The Future

What Is Organic Food | Is it really chemical-free?

Madhura Rao

Residues of synthetic chemicals ending up in food is a side-effect of industrialised agriculture.…

Keep updated with the latest news about your food with our newsletter

Follow Us