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, chicken and pigs), from which stem cells are extracted. These are proliferated, 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 – through the addition of fats, flavours, and physical shaping – to try and replicate the type of meats we see on the 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 damage to the environment 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
In accordance with these frankly terrifying truths, a number of studies have recently reported that the single biggest 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 choosing to follow 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, there is a growing movement of people choosing to eschew animal products altogether on ethical grounds and concerns for animal welfare.
So called clean-meat essentially kills both of these birds with a single stone, so to speak. By growing edible flesh from just a cluster of regenerative cells, we could potentially have a readily reproducible product which tastes just as good, while boasting the same nutritional value as it’s conventionally farmed counterpart. All of this, at a drastically lower cost to both 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 would thus be able to produce around 1000 burgers of the same size. Assuming this is the case, a single tissue sample could potentially 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 opting for 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, as well as to prevent the cells from developing into another tissue type altogether, or from simply dying in the petri-dish.
The majority of these growth factors and stimulants are currently derived from something known as 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 meat 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 when compared to conventional farming approaches.5,6
One of the major concerns surrounding cattle farming is the excessive production of methane from the animals. Methane is a significantly more potent greenhouse gas compared to carbon dioxide; In the first two decades following it’s 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 itself 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 would 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. Until, however, 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 biggest areas of research in this field is focussed around the development of an animal-free alternative to FBS. One thing the companies are less explicit on, 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.
Would you try lab-grown cultured meat in order to reduce your consumption of animal products if it could be made more energy efficient? Or are plant-based alternatives good enough? Let us know in the comments below!