Is lab-grown meat the future of sustainable and ethical food production?
The global population is rising at a rapid rate and is expected to reach a projected 9.7 billion by 2050 from the current 8 billion. There has been a surge of interest in sustainable and ethical food production to keep up with the growing population, environmental concerns, and animal rights.
Set against this background, lab-grown meat, once considered science fiction, has now become a reality. It is a groundbreaking concept that involves growing animal muscle tissue and fat from cells in a laboratory setting without the need for traditional animal farming practices.
Even though lab-grown meat has been successfully developed, its commercialization is limited due to various challenges. This is mainly because companies and manufacturers are facing difficulties in scaling up their production and breaking into the mainstream market.
Does this mean lab-grown meat is imminent? Will we be able to buy it in grocery stores in the near future? Let's explore the lab-grown meat industry by understanding how it gets made and if it really is the future of ethical and sustainable food production.
What is lab-grown meat and how is it made?
Lab-grown meat, also known as cultured or cell-based meat, is grown in vitro (in a lab or similar environment) using tissue-engineering techniques. Dutch researcher William van Eelen first came up with the idea of cultured meat in the 1950s when he was a prisoner of war during World War II.
The technology was demonstrated as early as 1961 when American pathologist Russel Ross successfully conducted in vitro cultivation of a guinea pig aorta.
Its first use as a food source came about in 1991 when John F. Vein obtained a patent for the manufacture of tissue-engineered meat for human consumption. However, it was the 2000s before the concept was popularized due to a paper co-authored by Jason Matheny, who later founded New Harvest, the world's first nonprofit organization dedicated to in-vitro meat research.
The first step to producing lab-grown meat is extracting or obtaining cells from a living animal. This is typically taken from an animal biopsy or cell bank, which serves as the source of the animal cells.
These cells, such as stem cells or muscle cells, are then placed in a nutrient-rich culture medium, called a growth medium, consisting of amino acids, carbohydrates, and proteins. The growth medium provides the conditions necessary for cell growth and development.
Through a combination of precise temperature control, oxygen supply, and nutrient supplementation, the cells multiply and differentiate, forming muscle fibers that eventually resemble the texture and composition of conventional meat.
To further facilitate the formation of complex 3-dimensional structures of the meat, scientists employ various scaffolding techniques, such as biodegradable scaffolds or 3D printing. These methods provide structural support to the developing cells and tissues by mimicking the natural formation of tissues to create a meat product with desirable composition and texture.
The technology behind lab-grown meat production relies on tissue engineering, cellular biology, and bioprocessing techniques. It aims to replicate the natural process of muscle tissue growth that occurs in animals but in a controlled and optimized laboratory environment. This allows for the production of meat that is biologically identical to conventionally farmed meat but with potentially reduced environmental impact and, of course, improved animal welfare.
In 2013, Dr. Mark Post, a Dutch pharmacologist, produced the world's first hamburger patty made from tissue grown outside of an animal. Since then, many prototypes have been created and tested using this technique.
The majority of companies and researchers have concentrated on creating common meats such as beef, pig, and chicken, which account for the vast majority of meat consumption in developed nations. However, certain companies have also developed elk, lamb, bison, Wagyu beef, fish, and other seafood.
How is lab-grown meat better for the environment?
Conventional livestock farming is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 7.1 gigatonnes (approximately 71 billion kg) of carbon dioxide (CO2)-equivalent emissions each year are attributed to global livestock production, which accounts for around 14.5% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions.
Beef production has the highest emissions, contributing 41% of global livestock production's GHG emissions. Buffalo meat, chicken meat, and other types of meat also contribute to emissions anywhere between 6 and 9% each.
Livestock is responsible for three GHGs, methane (CH4), CO2, and nitrous oxide (N2O), with 44% of emissions in the form of methane, 29% in the form of nitrous oxide, and 27% in the form of CO2. Lab-grown meat could significantly reduce emissions compared to conventional meat production techniques, as long as renewable energy is used to grow the meat (and to manufacture the precursor chemicals needed).
According to a report by the Good Food Institute and CE Delft, lab-grown meat could lower environmental impacts by 2030, based on the life cycle and techno-economics assessments.
According to the study, cultured meat has a lower carbon footprint than conventional meat if grown in a facility powered by renewable energy. Their analysis estimates that, in this case, cultured meat would have a carbon footprint of 92% lower than beef, 17% lower than chicken, and 52% lower than pork. This estimate stands even if conventional meat is produced more sustainably.
In addition to lowered emissions, lab-grown meat requires fewer land and water resources.
Conventional meat production requires extensive land for livestock grazing and growing animal feed crops, leading to deforestation and habitat destruction. In contrast, lab-grown meat can be produced in controlled environments, requiring minimal land area. It also requires less water for cultivation and animal maintenance, mitigating the strain on water resources.
An estimated 550 to 700 liters of water is required to produce 1 kg of beef. In comparison, lab-grown meat can reduce water consumption by 82–96%, resulting in significant water resource savings."
However, these numbers are for small-scale production. Much could change when cultured meat is mass-produced. According to a 2019 study, led by John Lynch from the University of Oxford, energy used to produce cultured meat could potentially result in higher GHG emissions compared to conventional meat production.
The study emphasizes the importance of factors such as clean energy and specific production techniques to ensure the environmental superiority of cultured meat over conventional methods.
Is lab-grown meat really ethical?
There are many different opinions about whether lab-grown meat is really ethical or not. One obvious benefit of cultured meat is the improvement in animal welfare. In traditional farming, animals are raised and slaughtered for meat, often in the worst of environments, which is cruel to the animals.
Lab-grown meat eliminates the need for animal slaughter. However, since the process still requires cells sourced from animals, it is not vegan. Many vegetarians also aren't comfortable with the idea of having meat that comes from or resembles animals.
This raises the question of developing technology that can produce 100% vegetarian or vegan meat, the so-called plant-based meat. Plant-based meat, unlike cultured meat, is manufactured from non-meat materials such as soya and does not possess the same nutritional profile as regular meat. But it can be made 100% vegan.
PETA has advocated for lab-grown meat and has invested in in vitro research for several years to put "humanely produced meat into the hands and mouths of the people who insist on eating animal flesh."
Lab-grown meat can be produced in controlled laboratory environments, providing optimal conditions for cell cultivation without subjecting animals to discomfort or pain.
Another risk with conventional livestock farming is the use of antibiotics due to the potential for antibiotic resistance from the indiscriminate use of these drugs. Lab-grown meat, however, is grown in a sterile environment, reducing its exposure to potential pathogens that cause illness, which is unavoidable in a slaughterhouse. By eliminating the reliance on antibiotics, cultured meat could help address public health concerns associated with antibiotic resistance and contribute to more responsible and sustainable food production.
According to a study led by Sghaier Chriki from ISARA, France, this argument would be null and void if antibiotics were added to the cultures to prevent contamination. Thus, this is potentially not a black-and-white argument or solution.
Moreover, the controlled laboratory conditions in which lab-grown meat is produced offers enhanced food safety. These conditions minimize the risk of foodborne illnesses commonly associated with conventional meat production, such as contamination from pathogens like Salmonella or E. coli.
Lab-grown meat offers consumers a safer and more dependable food alternative by removing the need for animal cruelty and related health hazards.
Challenges and future outlook
Lab-grown meat has a lot of potential for promising benefits for reducing GHG emissions and other environmental concerns while eliminating animal cruelty. However, several challenges need to be addressed first.
One major challenge is the cost of scalability and production, as scaling up production to meet global demand remains a complex task.
In addition, lab-grown meat has to pass regulatory standards, including FDA clearance. This last step has recently become a reality, with the FDA approving lab-grown chicken as safe to eat.
Despite the challenges, the future outlook for lab-grown meat is optimistic. Advances in technology continue to drive innovation in the field, paving the way for more efficient and cost-effective production methods. The commercial success of lab-grown meat and access to funding will play a pivotal role in driving further research.
The ultimate success of lab-grown meat also relies on consumer demand and acceptance. As awareness of the ethical and environmental effects of traditional meat production rises, there is potential for cultured meat to be widely taken up as a sustainable and moral alternative.