"It is estimated that by 2040, most of the meat people eat will not come from slaughtered animals and that 60% will be either grown in industrial-scale bioreactors or replaced by plant-based products that look and taste like meat".
Lab-grown meat is said to be a technology breakthrough in recent decades. However, there is much debate on the topic in terms of health, animal welfare, and sustainability.
We seem to have reached a place in society where we know animal agriculture is harmful which begs the question of why do we need to continue consuming meat, real or fake, and why aren't we choosing readily available plant-based alternatives?
In this article, we will take a look at some of the concerning questions around lab-grown meat. Is lab-grown meat vegan? How is lab-grown meat made in the lab? Does it really have benefits for our society and the earth?
When we look at a concept like lab-grown meat it is easy to begin comparing the pros and cons and get lost in the debate of Environment vs Animal Rights.
One thing we know for sure is that the number one most sustainable, eco-friendly, healthy, and safe lifestyle is to eat a 100% plant-based diet. The research backs up the fact that the animal agriculture industry is destroying the planet and our health.
No matter what side of the debate you consider yourself, no harm can come from further understanding lab-grown meat so you can best decide if it’s right for you.
Is Lab-Grown Meat Vegan?
Lab-grown meat is currently still a byproduct of the animal industry because without the tissue of a live animal it would not be possible to manufacture lab-grown meat. Whilst some may argue that the process does not involve the slaughter of animals, it still violates the animal and consequently causes harm. It keeps the system dependant on using animals for food instead of shifting away to healthier alternatives.
Any good news?
Some scientists have started to develop cell lines directly in the lab without the need for animal biopsies. This would make lab-grown meat animal and cruelty-free. Only time will tell if this form of lab-grown meat is appropriate for the market. Mock meats or soy meat are already widely available and are derived from soy or pea protein. Aside from mock meat, there are food companies using 100% vegetable-based ingredients like mushroom and beetroot to create a vegan version of a meat product.
How Is Lab-Grown Meat Produced?
Recent advances in tissue engineering allowed medicine to obtain muscle tissues from a selection of living samples with cell cultures. This is called in vitro production.
Scientists remove a small piece of the animal’s tissue and grow it in a nutritional culture that provides the cells with nutrients. This way; the muscle grows until it becomes a portion big enough to replicate real meat. Furthermore, scientists can selectively manage its composition. This allows lab-grown meat to be free of many non-beneficial components that cause negative issues in our health, like fat and cholesterol.
For example, scientists can control the ratio of omega six and omega-three fatty acids to create healthier meat by altering the DNA of the progenitor cells. Lab-grown meat can provide the desired portion while avoiding the antibiotics that animals usually ingest in feed-lots and intensive livestock systems.
Environmental Benefits Of Lab-Grown Meat
In traditional livestock, only 5 to 25% of the total animal’s weight is edible meat.
According to FAO, livestock is responsible for 14.5% of global CO2eq emissions due to the enteric fermentation of animals during their reproductive life, land-use change and manure treatment.
Compared to conventionally produced European livestock meat, cultured meat involves 78-98% less greenhouse gas emissions, 99% less land use and 82-96% less water use.
In addition, meat and animal products use 83% of the world’s farmland and contribute to 56-58% of all greenhouse gas emissions, even though they provide only 37% of our protein and 18% of our calories.
So the least we can say is that animal products are very inefficient under the current production systems. They consume a considerable portion of our resources while contributing to a tiny fraction of our nutritional intake.
When it comes to the sustainability debate - livestock vs the lab is a complex situation to assess as cultured meat is still a relatively new production process.
"The climate impacts of cultured meat production will depend on what level of sustainable energy generation can be achieved, as well as the efficiency of future culture processes".
Health Benefits Of Cultured Meat
As I mentioned before, not only can cultured meat can be selectively managed but is also free of many chemicals compared to conventional meat.
In feedlots and intensive livestock production systems, animals consume tonnes of antibiotics to prevent them from catching dangerous diseases and starting epidemics.
Cultured meat is not only free from any kind of antibiotics but is also safer. It only contains safe and moderate concentrations of preservatives and is continuously monitored to provide safety to consumers. Even the proportion and nutrient content can be controlled during the overall process.
Challenges Of Lab-Grown Meat Production
One of the main challenges of cultured meat is selecting an appropriate cell source for the animal tissue culture.
Many homogeneous start cells are needed for effective growth, and these cells can go through genetic instability processes. This cell line genetic instability is one of the main issues of cultured meat development today.
Another problem is that some tissues can’t grow indefinitely. Most cells have a limited capacity for division, limiting large-scale cultures of muscle tissue in a lab. This is another challenge to provide industrial quantities of cultured meat. It works at low scales, but the costs to upscale the process are still very high.
Also, obtaining serum-free culture media is a big challenge. The serum comes from the bovine fetuses which contain nutrients, hormones and other components that stimulate growth. However, using this culture involves a complex process for the cow’s fetus. Finding a new medium that is low-cost and safe for tissue engineering is crucial to scale up cultured meat production.
There are many challenges ahead for such a new and complex technology. There will also be a concern surrounding the ethics of lab-grown meat and it is easy to see why many will argue it is not cruelty-free.
Cultured meat also indicates that we are continuing to promote a need for meat - when we already have science and research that tells us we do not need to consume meat to be healthy and it is the leading cause of many lifestyle diseases.
So far, lab-grown meat has only been produced in low-scale systems. According to a recent paper, it took three months to grow a five-ounce meat patty in a lab and cost more than $330.000 USD.
If you are already thinking of swapping animal meat for lab-grown meat perhaps it means you are considering a lifestyle change towards cruelty-free food?
I encourage you to try and incorporate plant-based options like fresh vegetables, legumes, tofu, tempeh and beans which are readily available and affordable. Whole foods such as fruits and vegetables will do wonders for your health and wellbeing and are less destructive to the environment when compared with animal agriculture.
There is no need to wait for the lab-grown meat industry - start making the positive change today!
The animals will thank you for it.
Check out my Top 5 Vegan Dinners You Can Make At Home article to see how easy and affordable its to go plant-based!
About The Writer
Belén Silva is a Chemical engineer from Argentina. She started her freelance writing and environmental consulting career after working for many years in the automotive industry as an environmental engineer. In addition, she has a personal project of environmental communications that includes a blog, an Instagram account and a Youtube channel. You can read more from her on her website Idonella.
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Zhang, G. et al., “Challenges and possibilities for bio-manufacturing cultured meat”, Trends in Food Science & Technology 97, 2020.
Poore, C., Nemececk, T., “Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers”, Science, 2018, 360 (6392).