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Written by Elliot Jaffe

Meat is messy. From health and climate issues to a fundamental repugnance for slaughter, the meat production industry has long borne the ire of environmental and animal welfare advocates. One option for concerned consumers is to individually forego animal products; as a result, plant-based alternatives have recently grown in popularity (remember when Rand burgers became part mushroom?). But there might be a way to satisfy meat-eaters’ protein preferences while alleviating ecological impact and animal suffering.

First, it’s worth explaining why finding alternative means of meat production is so critical. To begin, the environmental cost of sustaining our current rate of production is enormous. With a projected population exceeding 9 billion by 2050, the largest meat purveyors have transitioned from traditional herding methods to an indoor “factory farm” model looking to ensure availability and consistency of their products. Today, roughly 70% of cows and virtually 100% of pigs and chickens are raised in such conditions, and by 2050, worldwide meat production is expected to double alongside rising incomes globally.

This factory model prioritizes operational efficiency, but it introduces a myriad of further challenges. For example, consequences of animal concentration often include abysmal sanitary conditions and opportunities for rapid disease spread between animals and people, necessitating increased antibiotic use. Furthermore, any animal – grazing or confined – requires feed. Growing agricultural products for feed demands 33% of the earth’s arable land, with livestock production constituting 70% of all agricultural land use. As for the climate, the immense volume of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from raising livestock represents ~15% of all anthropogenic (human-caused) carbon emissions, a dire sign of systematic inefficiency. In short, this existing form of industrialized meat production is recognized as environmentally detrimental and unsustainable.

But here’s some food for thought: what if instead of raising an entire animal, we grew only the parts meant for consumption? With the advent of stem cell science and cellular agriculture, it’s possible advancements in cultured meat – also called in vitro, lab-grown, or synthetic meat – could offer viable solutions in the quest for cleaner and more ethical consumption. The process starts with a muscle sample from the animal of choice. From this sample, stem cells  – cells that grow not only into more muscle cells, but other types found in a normal cut of meat  – within the muscle fibers are isolated. These cells then undergo culturing where they multiply and diversify within a carefully-formulated, nutrient-rich medium. Mimicking the muscle fibers and tissue structure of natural meat necessitates using a scaffold – a spongy biomaterial backbone (plant or animal-derived) that helps cells proliferate into the desired overall shape. These steps used to be confined to small batches within the laboratory, but purpose-built bioreactors now allow for larger-scale controlled growth by simulating the temperature, nutrient intake, and muscular exertion of a living body all within a contraption that resembles a brewery’s fermentation tank. The end result is genuine meat in the form of minced protein or layers which are assembled into a complete cut.

An overview of the cultured meat process.
Source: The eco-friendly burger – Hanna Tuomisto, U. of Helsinki

With cultured meat, a second major benefit becomes clear: it’s virtually slaughter-free. Many meat eaters face the constant moral dilemma of maintaining their diet while acknowledging the history of suffering behind their meal, but most do not plan on curbing consumption. While cultured meat isn’t a substitute for vegetarianism, it would at very least avoid the costliness and callousness of raising more animals for slaughter. There are also health benefits for consumers; sterile growth environments are free of contaminants associated with animal confinement and slaughterhouses. Moreover, controlling every aspect of the growth process means the end product is in theory infinitely customizable and able to satisfy different tastes or dietary needs.

This technology is now preparing to jump from the petri dish to a commercial setting. Beef was originally the prime target for replacement when weighing the amount of resources needed to raise cattle, their rate of GHG emissions and high consumer demand, but dozens of start-up companies are now vying to expand the menu to chicken, fish, shrimp, pork, and even exotic or endangered animals. A once several hundred-thousand dollar endeavor to produce a single entrée is soon expected to be available to consumers for the price of a gourmet hamburger, positioning cultured meat to be a true contender in the grocery aisle.

But while the benefits may seem irresistible, cultured meat is nevertheless no panacea for environmental or ethical concerns. Fossil fuel energies would still be responsible for powering most of the operation, offsetting much of the purported climate impact. There is no clear consensus on whether cultured meat would be advantageous over traditional farming in the long run in terms of GHG emissions. And though at a lower rate than factory farms, cultured meat still uses antibiotics.

The ethical and social aspects are not clear-cut, either. For instance, a major drawback is that the best culturing medium is fetal bovine serum – an expensive substance collected from the blood of fetal calves, which is why cultured meat is virtually and not completely slaughter-less. While alternative growth media are in the works, there remains the fact that obtaining starting cells from a tissue biopsy, while painless under anesthetic, is not wholly animal-free, meaning it is unlikely to convince staunch opponents of carnivory.

Even if science and economics favor lab-grown meat, a final hurdle for its wide-spread usage is consumer acceptance. Surveys show some consumers have reservations about the ‘unnaturalness’ and are skeptical cultured meat would truly replicate their favorite foods. However, proponents of the technology believe these views are the result of unfamiliarity and skewed news coverage, so new research is prioritizing closely emulating traditional meat’s flavor, texture, and appearance to gain broader appeal. Still, some are bound to view the food as overly synthetic and unnatural, prompting similar distrust and vilification as observed with GMO foods.

If your own concerns have to do with the environmental or animal welfare aspects of meat production, the best option remains to simply eat less meat. Although the touted environmental benefits of cultured meat are tied up in a web of statistical considerations, the technology is progressing by the day with sustainability in mind. Given the unlikelihood that reduction in meat consumption will take hold worldwide, cultured meat is an encouraging alternative to our current means of production. Cultured products might be available at your local grocery store sooner than you’d expect.