Is lab-grown meat the future?

Published

Credit: Katrina Williams

Tara Gandhi
Editor-in-Chief

With the world growing more environmentally aware, more and more people are reducing their meat intake, conscious of the impact that animal farming is having on the planet. But what if you could enjoy a Big Mac that was grown in a lab? Can cruelty-free meat really exist?

In 2013, the first ever lab-grown burger was available to taste for the price of €300,000. It took creators a year to make and was described as “close to meat, but not as juicy”. This could be

the answer environmentally-conscious foodies have been looking for. But there are lots of hurdles the makers of these meats will have to overcome before we can get our hands on a test tube turkey twizzler…

1. It won’t be completely cruelty-free

Lab-grown meat seems to be the next step in the quest to find hyper-realistic but cruelty-free meat. The idea that vegetarians and even vegans may be able to enjoy meat without having to worry about animal cruelty or environmental impact seems utopian. Unfortunately, with the current process, it still is a bit of a pipe dream. While the term “lab-grown” may lead you to think that they whip it out of thin air using the magic of science, they actually have to use “cultured cells”. These cultured cells come from stem cells that are taken from animals; either live donors or from the slaughterhouse. Harvesting the cells can be hard work, and “cellular agriculture” company, New Harvest, are hoping to help the situation by setting up lab supply catalogues, where researchers can order cell lines; and a system for researchers to share cultures, much in the same way people share bacteria starters for kombucha or sourdough. But it looks like using stem cells is the way it will stay — even in a world where all our meat is made in labs, we’d still have to farm donor herds, since adult stem cells have a limited life span once harvested. If these samples are taken from live animals, lab meat could be seen to be “vegetarian”, but it looks like we are a long way off being able to eat meat without harming any animals.

2. It only grows in small pieces

Growing meat in consumer-attractive portion sizes is very difficult. The aforementioned €300,000 burger had to be created out of multiple pieces of lab-grown meat. The cultured cells used by scientists have to be coaxed to multiply in a lab through “scaffolding”, which mimics the job of blood vessels, feeding the cells with nutrients and oxygen. The problem is, as the sample size grows, it becomes harder for the scaffolding to support. Some meats work better, needing much less complex scaffolding, such as turkey, but it is still hard to create a decent-sized piece of meat. And having to build the portions out of multiple smaller pieces doesn’t help with the issue of cost — at €300,000, it’s not exactly a bargain, and while costs have been brought down to around $800, it’s still a long way from something consumers can put straight into their basket.

3. The taste just isn’t right

Nearly every sample that has been tried so far has been critiqued for its taste. The key problem is that the regular meat we eat day-to-day is a combination of both muscle and fat cells, and artificially creating this combination in the correct way can be quite the challenge. Some researchers have managed to get some fat cells to grow alongside the muscle cells, especially with turkey meat; but it is an issue, and one that will impact both taste and texture — basically the whole eating experience. This doesn’t mean that all lab-grown meat is weird-tasting, but it is a lot harder to grow refined cuts, such as steak or breast — making nuggets and patties is much easier.

4. How should it be marketed?

Farmers across America are already gearing up for long legal battles with the labs that are becoming their competition. Consumer surveys have shown that the American public favours the term “lab-grown”, as do farmers, wanting to ensure that there’s a distinction between what they call “traditional” meat and meat made in labs. Some of them have taken it further, calling it “fake”, and petitioning the USDA to change the definition of meat to make sure it includes that it has been “harvested in the traditional manner”, i.e killed. But the researchers behind the meat prefer another term, “clean meat”, hoping that this conveys the fact that they believe the meat is far better than the traditional alternative in terms of both ethics and environmentalism.

5. It might not actually be better for the environment

A study from Oxford University has highlighted that the lengthy process of creating lab-grown meat may actually end up creating more negative environmental impacts than traditional farming. The energy it requires to create lab-grown meat would mean an increase in the carbon dioxide released into the environment. While the methane released by cattle farming does have a greater warming effect, it doesn’t stay in the atmosphere permanently, expiring after 12 years in the atmosphere. As traditional farming decreases, the methane it leaves in the atmosphere will decrease too, but the CO2 released by these labs will stay in the atmosphere for millennia.

So, lab-grown meat might not actually be the answer to all our problems, as we hoped it would be. With the main reasons for meat reduction in this day and age being environmental concerns and ethical issues, lab-grown meat doesn’t satiate these concerns as much as make them worse! If you ask me, insect burgers are the way forward.