Over the last several years controversy surrounding lab-grown, or cultured, meat has exploded. Ranchers have argued over whether or not it should be considered meat, while vegans have argued about whether or not it should be considered vegan. One thing is clear: lab-grown meat has the capacity to dramatically change the way we eat, and the impacts that our diets have on the world around us.
What is lab-grown meat?
Lab-grown meat, also called cultured or cultivated meat, is grown from the cells of an animal, without any need to slaughter an animal to obtain the meat. The animal’s cells are cultivated in stainless steel drums called bioreactors, which are engineered to encourage replication of cells or growth of biological mass. The products that result from this process have been met with excitement due to their potential to replace the millions of animals being raised on factory farms around the world. Because cultured meat is produced in laboratory environments, it does not suffer from some of the contamination and health issues that plague traditional meat producers, such as antibiotic resistance and foodborne and zoonotic illnesses.
What is lab-grown meat made of?
Lab-grown meat is made of the same cells that make up meat from slaughtered animals. The only difference is that cultured meat is produced in labs, whereas traditional meat requires the slaughter of animals.1
Lab-grown meat production process
The process of growing meat in a lab starts with animal cells. If the cells are collected directly from an animal, the animals do not need to be slaughtered. Once the cells have been gathered, they are placed into cultivators where they are provided with a growth medium to encourage them to multiply. Alterations to the medium and the use of a scaffolding structure trigger cells to differentiate into fat, sinew, and other elements that help to recreate the textures that occur in farm-raised meat.
Why are people growing meat in labs?
The appeal of lab-grown meat stems from the impact that it could have on the environment, public health, and animal welfare. If it can be brought to scale, cell-cultured meat could be a key step toward more sustainable diets, fewer animals being raised for slaughter, the eventual phasing out of factory farms, and improved public health.
Is meat grown in a lab healthy?
Cultured meat is cellularly indistinguishable from the flesh of animals raised on a factory farm. However, there are several aspects of health in which cultured meat surpasses traditionally farmed meat. For example, animal agriculture is already one of the major contributors to antibiotic resistance worldwide, and the use of subtherapeutic antibiotics in animal farming is set to increase further in the coming years. Cellular meat does not require the heavy use of antibiotics, so its production does not contribute to this ongoing public health crisis.
Another aspect of cultured meat that makes it healthier than its farm-raised equivalent is its lower likelihood of causing zoonotic diseases. While animal agriculture is likely to be a source of future pandemics caused by illnesses that jump from animals to people, this risk is minimized in cell-cultured agriculture, because there are no animals involved once the cells have been collected.
Is lab-grown meat bad?
One potential issue with lab-grown meat over the long term is that its production on a large scale may encourage people to continue to overconsume meat products. Consuming red meat, particularly, has been linked to a variety of health issues including heart disease. Given that cellular methods are able to produce red meat without the massive environmental and animal welfare tolls of raising cattle, it is possible that individual consumption could go up, helping to perpetuate poor health outcomes in the United States.
Other issues with lab-grown meat have to do with people’s uncertainty about its relation to meat from slaughtered animals. Cell-cultured meat has been the subject of some discussion in religious communities, for example, concerning whether it meets religious dietary restrictions.
Lab-grown meat pros and cons
Any consideration of lab-grown meat must include discussion of its pros and cons.
- Animal welfare. Lab-grown meat does not require that animals suffer like they do on a tremendous scale in industrial farming, which produces more than 99 percent of our current meat supply.
- Environment. Lab-grown meat requires less land and water than traditional meat, and produces fewer greenhouse gasses.
- Worker welfare. Industrial animal agriculture contributes to many health problems for its workers. Slaughterhouses are one of the most dangerous industries for workers in America today.
- Public health. The pandemic and antibiotic resistance risks of lab-grown meat are minimal compared to those of factory farms.
- Cultural acceptance. Farm Forward’s most recent consumer survey shows that two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans say that they would eat lab-grown meat. That leaves about one-third (33 percent) who currently would not.
- Regulatory challenges. At the moment, lab-grown meat is prohibited from commercial availability in all countries except for Singapore.
- Economics. Conventional meat benefits from government subsidies. Whether or not lab grown meat could ever receive comparable subsidies, it would have to achieve a much larger scale of production to compete with conventional meat on price.
- Technical challenges. Some skeptics believe that the technical and biological challenges that would be involved in producing mammalian cells at a large scale are impossible to overcome.
Lab-grown meat versus real meat
Lab-grown meat and “real” meat from farm-raised animals are indistinguishable on a cellular level. The major differences between them stem from their methods of production. For example, farm-raised meat is a major contributor to climate change. If adopted on a large scale, lab-grown meat would contribute less to global warming and air pollution while using less water and land, particularly in conjunction with the use of renewable energy.
Is lab-grown meat vegetarian?
Vegetarians have traditionally excluded meat from their diets, usually for ethical, environmental, health, or religious reasons. Because lab-grown meat is the same substance as meat that has been produced conventionally, some might not consider lab-grown meat vegetarian. However, because lab-grown meat has a much lower environmental footprint than traditional meat, and can be produced without harming an animal, some might consider lab-grown meat vegetarian.
The nutritional profile of lab-grown meat appears to be identical to traditional meat, so people who eat a vegetarian diet for individual health reasons would likely not eat lab-grown meat.
Some religious communities with doctrines related to eating meat are debating whether lab-grown meat should be treated the same as traditional meat, since, for example, there is no animal slaughtered to produce lab-grown meat, so religious rules pertaining to slaughter cannot be observed.
Is lab-grown meat vegan?
Vegans have traditionally excluded all animal products, including meat, from their diets, usually for ethical, environmental, health, or religious reasons. There is potential for cultured meat to be considered vegan. Some people who follow a vegan lifestyle seek to minimize suffering or environmental devastation, while others view veganism as not eating, wearing, or otherwise using any animal products. From the former perspective, cultured meat could be considered vegan, because no animals are necessarily raised and killed in order to produce it. However, those who adhere to the latter perspective may not consider lab-grown meat vegan, as on the cellular level it is the same product as traditionally-produced meat.
Did the FDA approve lab-grown meat?
The Food and Drug Association (FDA) recently issued “no questions” letters to UPSIDE Foods and to GOOD Meat (the cultured meat division of Eat Just, Inc.) for their cultivated chicken products. These letters do not constitute approvals of these companies’ lab-grown meat products, but rather signal that at this point in the development process the FDA is accepting the companies’ conclusion that their products are safe. There is still a process that their products, and those made by other cell-based meat companies, will need to undergo before hitting supermarket shelves in the U.S. Part of this process includes getting approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Is lab-grown meat available in the U.S.?
Lab-grown meat is not yet available in the United States, as it is still pending approval by the USDA.
When can people buy lab-grown meat?
Though lab-grown meat recently took a big step toward hitting grocery store shelves when the FDA chose not to contest one company’s safety statement, there are still lengthy approval processes to move through. Products must be inspected and approved by the USDA before they can be sold in grocery stores. With dozens of different companies, each specializing in a specific cell-based product such as lamb, seafood, pork, or beef, the process of getting a cell-based option to consumers will still take some time.
Lab-grown meat companies
The global lab-grown meat industry was worth $246.9 million in 2022. The industry is expected to expand exponentially through 2030. The growth and promise of the industry have attracted a plethora of different companies, each working to create a specific cell-based product.
- Believer Meats. Previously Future Meat Technologies, this company focuses on increasing the efficiency of cell-based meat production.
- UPSIDE Foods. UPSIDE Foods focuses on creating cultivated chicken.
- Mosa Meat. Mosa Meat is a Dutch company focused on creating cell-cultivated beef.
- SuperMeat. This company focuses on lab-grown chicken, which they then use to create recipes within their test kitchen.
- Aleph Farms. This company cultivates steak in their labs.
- Bond Pet Food. Bond cultivates chicken protein, dries it, and grinds it into a fine powder, for use in dry and wet dog and cat foods.
What challenges in lab-grown meat need to be overcome?
Lab-grown meat still faces a large number of daunting challenges in its production process before it can reach a large enough scale to effectively compete against industrial raised meat.
A vegan growth medium
When first conceived, cell-cultured meat used fetal bovine serum as the medium for growing the meat. However, in recent years several companies have announced that they have created new animal-free growth mediums that are just as effective at cultivating and encouraging cell growth as their predecessors.
Lab-grown meat companies have struggled with cultivating meat quickly enough to mass produce it. There are some signs of progress, such as facilities already launched internationally that can produce as much as 1,000 pounds of lab-grown meat a day.
Detractors of cultivated meat may doubt whether it’s possible to create meat in a lab that shares the texture of farm-raised meat. Conventional meat consists of about 90 percent muscle fibers and smaller amounts of fat, connective, nervous, and vascular tissues. This combination gives meat certain chewing characteristics such as cohesiveness, springiness, and resilience to which meat eaters have grown accustomed. Texture has long been a sticking point for cell-cultured meat companies working to create more complex meats (as opposed to highly processed meats like chicken nuggets). A recent analysis of lab-grown meat used in frankfurters, turkey breast cold cuts, and chicken breasts found that the texture was very similar to the farm-raised products being imitated.
In addition, lab-grown meat faces a number of regulatory, cultural, and economic challenges that it must overcome for production to reach the scale necessary to compete with traditional meat on price.
Will lab-grown meat replace factory farming?
Lab-grown meat will likely play an important role in the elimination of factory farming—assuming that the products can be brought to market at a cost similar to industrially raised animal products—but it won’t be the only factor. Lab-grown meat faces an uphill battle in several areas. It will take some time for lab-grown meat to become culturally accepted as an alternative to traditional meat. Another potential hurdle comes from farmers, who may attempt to further increase production efficiency and decrease costs as they seek to compete with lab-grown meat. If industrial farms’ stocking densities increase, scales expands, and animals are treated increasingly as cogs in a machine, this would likely result in even worse consequences for animals, people, and the environment.
However, even if lab-grown meat could take over a small percentage of the meat market this would likely result in tens of millions of fewer animals raised in industrial farms, this would be a huge step forward.
What would happen to farmers and their animals if cultivated meat took off?
Cultured meat has been in the works for decades and still has many regulatory and production hurdles to clear before it hits grocery store shelves. In even the most optimistic scenarios, lab-grown meat would initially be available only in a limited number of outlets. The public’s uptake of lab-grown meat as a staple protein source would be gradual. Therefore, factory farms would not be eliminated overnight. Rather, cell-based meat could be one of the driving forces behind reducing the sizes of factory farms over a longer period of time. This phase-out provides ample time for farmers to retire or adapt to the changing market.
As we have written elsewhere,
[Lab-grown] meats will play a key role in replacing the need for factory farming by providing nutritious, desirable, low-cost products, but even assuming wide adoption of these technologies a sizable group of people will remain committed to eating farmed animals. Bearing those consumers in mind, defeating factory farming will require a second strategy: providing an adequate supply of animal products from higher (and the highest) welfare conditions. Farm Forward’s strongly supports plant based/cellular meat, but we would be unwise to put all of our eggs in one basket. Plant based/cellular meat and higher welfare meat must work synergistically if we are to create a world free of factory farming. We must not lose sight of either.
Cell-based meat has come a long way since the first burger from a lab was produced in 2013. Since then, intense research has resulted in a vast array of products. While many challenges remain in the decades ahead, lab-grown meat may become a significant force reducing society’s dependence on the factory farms that have proven so devastating to animal welfare and the climate and environment.