Lab-grown meat – why the farm could switch to the petri dish
What is lab-grown meat?
This is one of those occasions where the term really is self-explanatory. While your standard steak, chicken drumstick or pork chop is originally farmed from an animal that is killed for its meat, lab-grown meat cuts out the animal completely and grows muscle cells extracted from the animal in the laboratory for a slaughter-free meal.
In theory, anyway. Although the first lab-grown burger was eaten all the way back in 2013, it did come at a cost of £215,000, which exceeds the majority of the world’s weekly food budget by some margin.
The cost has come down considerably in the years since, and last year the price was closer to £50 per kg. That’s still a lot – beef mince is around £2.50 per kg, but given Wagyu beef can go as high as £195 per kg, we’re getting close – and it could be on the menu by 2020.
£50 per kg? So lab-grown meat tastes good, right?
Uh. I’ve not personally tried it (but I wouldn’t say no, if given the chance), but early feedback on the world’s first lab-grown burger wasn’t exactly a five star TripAdvisor review:
“There is quite some intense taste,” said food scientist Hanni Rützler. “It is close to meat, but it is not juicy.”
“This is kind of an unnatural experience, because I can’t tell you how many times in the last 20 years I’ve had a hamburger without ketchup,” said author Josh Schonwald.
“The texture, the mouthfeel, has a feel like meat,” he added. “The absence is the fat. It’s a leanness to it. The bite feels like a conventional hamburger.”
Yeah, the lack of fat. The earliest lab-grown burger was fat-free, like no beef on the planet, so it’s unsurprising that it tasted slightly foreign. We’ve come a decent way in three years.
Why do we need lab-grown meat?
Just because we’ve been eating meat in the world since the year dot doesn’t mean it’s desirable. As demand has grown and populations swelled, it’s gone from being a personal moral choice to a real, global problem.
It’s broadly an environmental and sustainability issue: global meat farming contributes around 18% of our greenhouse gases, and the gases it puts out in serious quantities – methane (40% of our total) and nitrous oxide (65% of our total) – are significantly worse for the climate than common or garden carbon dioxide. Around 300 times worse, in the case of the latter.
Away from the hidden pollution problem of livestock, there’s a far more visible issue: industrial farming uses up a huge amount of both space and resources.
Away from the hidden pollution problem of livestock, there’s a far more visible issue: industrial farming uses up a huge amount of both space and resources.This 2003 report from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition is pretty damning on the subject, explaining that farm animals in America consume seven times more grain than the people living in the same country – enough to feed around 840 million people. On top of that, the report explains that 25 kilocalories worth of fossil fuel energy are consumed in order to make one kilocalorie of meat protein, and meat also needs 100 times more water than the equivalent weight in grain. It’s not clear how big the environmental foodprint of lab-grown meat will be yet, but it would be shocking if it were anywhere near as bad as industrial farming.
The problem is partly one of scale, but it’s only going to get worse. These issues weren’t a big deal when the population was small and meat was something only the very rich could afford (ignoring the massive equality issue for one moment), because the animals of the world weren’t as significant a hog on resources and as big a part of climate change. However, as factory farming has pushed the cost of meat down (along with the wellbeing of animals), and previously poor economies’ populations begin to eat meat, the problem becomes far more significant. China and India represent nearly 40% of the world’s total population between them, and meat eating is growing rapidly as living standards rise. China went from an average of 13kg of meat per person in 1982 to consuming 71 million tonnes per year in 2012. That simply isn’t sustainable. If demand increases at this rate, animal welfare will get (even) worse and the price will skyrocket, suddenly making the expense of lab-grown meat that bit more appealing.
And while it’s not a “need” exactly, there’s a significant body of people who believe either eating meat is wrong or that factory farming is cruel, or both. These issues are neatly sidestepped by meat that involves no pain to animals.
Wait, does that mean vegetarians can eat lab-grown meat?
Not all vegetarians are clamouring to eat meat, of course, but depending on their reasons, very possibly. Lab-grown meat does, after all, remove the big problem animal rights activists have with carnivorous diets: that it involves the slaughter of living things.
Not everyone is convinced of this, however. Not only because lab-grown meat wouldn’t replace the meat industry (not right away in any case), but it could actually be counter-intuitive and get more people eating meat – very much the cause they are opposed to. There’s also the risk that lab-grown meat could create demand for real, authentic meat, and make it a more desirable product compared to the “imitation” stuff.
And, of course, lab-grown meat is still meat – there are not just dietary reasons why a lifelong vegetarian may find it less than appetising, but it is still the result of animal suffering. Just significantly less animal suffering than current farming methods.
Ethics aside, unless you’re a vegetarian who would be all over eating meat if it weren’t for the killing involved, Mark Post – the researcher who led Maastricht University’s lab-grown meat project – suggests vegetarians stay that way. “Quite frankly, vegetarians should remain vegetarians, that’s better for the environment than cultured beef. We’re aiming toward beef eaters that want to eat beef in a more environmental and ethical way. But the vegetarians should remain vegetarians, it’s better for the environment.”
How is lab-grown meat made?
The process of making lab-grown meat isn’t exactly pleasant, but hey, neither is the inside of an abattoir. Here are the details, in the case of the burger. Scientists are already working on other animals, including chickens.
Stem cells are taken from cow muscle tissue and then cultured with nutrients and chemicals to encourage them to grow and multiply. Three weeks later, you have over a million stem cells, which are then moved to dishes where they form small strips of muscle around a centimetre long.
Layer them together, mix them with fat and add some colour and your meal is served.
What are the alternatives to lab-grown meat?
Aside from the whole planet embracing vegetarianism or actively reducing meat consumption? Well, there’s one interesting solution, but it might be even harder to stomach than meat grown in a laboratory: eating insects.
Even the United Nations is behind this idea. Pound for pound, insects can provide a source of protein similar to minced beef – 28.2 grams from 100g of caterpillars to 100g of beef, for example. Insects also reproduce quickly and naturally take up considerably less natural resources than full scale cattle farms. Already, around two billion people eat insects in some form or other (not just those who accidently inhale spiders in their sleep), so it’s not completely unheard of. The UN does concede that “consumer disgust” is the biggest barrier to mass adoption, though.
Is lab-grown meat more acceptable, or are we more likely to blindly continue mass farming?
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Images: David Parry / PA Wire, while photographs from Stiina, Robert Couse-Baker and Flavio Ensiki are used under Creative Commons
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