What Is Lab Grown Meat & How Sustainable Is It?

A researcher testing different kinds of lab grown meat.

Change is coming to global meat manufacturing.

Lab grown meat has entered the scene, brought with it a whole host of interesting, debatable questions.

Meat is an integral part of the lives of so many people – so it’s bound to be a bumpy ride before any new technology is truly accepted.

The beauty of lab grown meat is that it offers a satisfying alternative for the most zealous of meat eaters that may also help solve our current ecological crisis.

Do its benefits outweigh any potential risks?

What is lab grown meat?

First of all, lab grown meat goes by a few different names; here are a few of the most common terms you may come across:

  • Lab grown meat
  • Cultivated meat
  • Cultured meat
  • Cell based meat
  • In-vitro meat

These names are interchangeable, but within the industry itself the preferred term is cultivated meat. Regardless of which name is best, it’s important to realize that lab grown meat is not the same thing as plant based meat – it’s not made from plants.

Lab grown meat sausages made by Ivy Farm Technologies.

Like the name implies, lab grown meat is manufactured instead of being directly harvested from a dead animal; however, it’s still made from the cells of animals – compared to most plant based alternatives made from things like soy.

The big selling point of manufacturing meat in this way is that it drastically reduces the need to farm or kill animals for their meat, which has a variety of benefits we’ll cover shortly. In general, people aren’t usually very open to the idea of lab grown food, but many of the foods we eat today – including fruits and vegetables – have been bioengineered in some capacity.

A monoculture field of GMO corn growing in the sunshine.

The pros and cons of GMOs are widely studied, and they’re largely considered safe for humans to eat. Usually, the goal of altering a crop is to improve its size, taste, or resistance to climate change and extreme weather events. Growing our chicken nuggies and burgers in a lab offers us a new and unique way to reduce our impact on the environment.

How is lab grown meat made?

Growing meat in a lab involves a few different steps, the first of which is to obtain a number of stem cells from the animal itself. These cells are then fed various kinds of nutrients that cells within a body would have access to – all while happily growing inside of bioreactors, huge vats in which the meat grows.

stem cells: cells able to develop into other kinds of specialized cells

Depending on what a cell is fed and when, it develops into a specialized cell – things like muscle, fat, or connective tissue. Finally, all of these cells are then combined in a way that mimics the natural form of common meat products like beef or chicken; the entire process takes at least two weeks, up to around two months.

A chart showing the estimated timeline of producing various kinds of cultivated meat.
Image via WhatIsCultivatedMeat

This is a highly simplified version of what actually takes place; but the basic idea is to collect cells from an animal, and then grow and combine them in a way that satisfies our human taste buds – preferably without harming the animals.

Aside from reducing animal suffering, cell based meats offer us a path forward in lowering the environmental impact of meat in a few different ways, which we’ll talk about next.

What are the benefits of cultured meat?

Humanity’s addiction to animal products has devastating effects on the natural world; and with around 80 billion animals slaughtered each year, it’s easy to imagine how this may cause a few issues. Let’s take a look at the issues cultivated meats could help solve:

Cell grown meat requires fewer resources to produce. Unfortunately, our current meat production process involves a highly wasteful chain of events that devastates our planet’s remaining ecosystems. While mostly hypothetical as the industry begins to scale up, studies surrounding the environmental impact of cultured meat have come to a few conclusions:

  • It requires less water and land to produce
  • It produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions
  • Requires less energy for more protein-rich calories
  • Leads to less soil and water pollution
A graph showing the amount of land being used by types of food production.

Super valuable benefits in times like these; in which we see a growing trend of worldwide deforestation (especially due to products from the rainforest), rampant monoculture farming operations abusing poorly regulated pesticides, and a general shrinking in terms of access to our world’s cleanest water reserves.

Growing meat from cells reduces animal suffering. The pain and suffering almost every animal raised for food endures isn’t usually the focal point of this topic, but it’s still important for many supporters. And this isn’t limited to farm animals either; the biodiversity loss stemming from the destruction of important forest biomes means we’re on track to lose a number of unique, understudied wild animal cultures as well.

A pair of calves chained up behind a fence.

Aside from learning how to go vegan, supporting new cultured meat companies is a valid way to encourage a shift in attitude when it comes to not abusing and slaughtering billions of living beings each year.

Cultivated seafood could help end overfishing. Not only do we pillage our remaining arable land in the name of cheeseburgers – even fishing is under fire as of late as the negative effects of too many ocean-bound fleets are starting to pile up. Overfishing is leading to a similar reality at sea, in which the whaling and seafood industries are taking too much and giving nothing in return.

Lab grown meat companies like Finless Foods, who specialize in seafood, are starting to garner support for their work that aims to reduce the environmental effects of regulated and unregulated fishing. Another potential benefit could even be fewer coral bleaching events associated with agricultural run-off pollution, as these ecosystems are home to a majority of ocean life.

Lab made meat could be healthier for us. Another side effect of the animal industry is the spread of diseases originating from within animals. Pandemics like COVID-19, and to a lesser extent things like H1N1 (swine flu) are on the rise in part due to us simply having too many tightly-packed enclosures.

A petri dish used to test for various antimicrobial resistances.
Image by DFID via Flickr

The way we currently raise and slaughter animals consistently results in contaminated cuts of meat hitting the grocery store shelves. In fact, rampant antibiotic use within the farming industry has even led to the development of E. coli and Salmonella superbugs – highly resistant variants of common foodborne disease.

Renewable energy can be used to make lab cultivated meat. While industrial animal agriculture is streamlined and efficient to a degree, it involves a lot of labor and energy spread out across, in some circumstances, vast swaths of land. A modern day meat laboratory, on the other hand, has the potential to be custom-built from the ground up.

Customizations that work alongside the fast paced renewables industry could mean much more efficient operations overall; although it’s important to be realistic about all of this as it’s impossible to eliminate all emissions.

What obstacles stand in the way of cultivated meat?

Growing meat from stem cells is a relatively new idea, but the novelty of the industry isn’t the only thing standing in its way. So, what is currently the biggest hurdle standing in the way of widely available cultured meat?

Most people would assume a general ick-factor to eating test tube meat would be, but it’s actually a combination of things:

Cell cultured meat is still expensive to make. The biggest hurdle for cultivating meat right now is scaling production up in a way that’s both profitable and leads to the highest quality product possible. The reality is, if you were presented with a grotesque, foul tasting lab grown burger – that would be the end of your food journey.

A cultivated pork burger made by Ivy Farm Technologies.

The science of cultivated meat is actually quite easy and enjoyable to read up on if you’re into food science and nutrition; the main issue right now is smoothing out complex, expensive bumps in its supply chain while maintaining high standards for cultivated meat products.

Food regulations can take a long time to adopt new policies. New products are kept in check through laws, and food regulations in particular can take quite a long time to change. Two countries now allow the production and sale of: Singapore and the United States, while the European Union and countries like Israel and Australia are still finalizing approval.

As of June 2023, cell cultured meat companies like GOOD Meat (the meat division of Eat Just) can now sell their products in the US alongside other FDA approved lab grown meat brands. Singapore was the first country to approve cultivated meat, and has since become a bit of a hub for the industry.

The taste and texture of lab grown meat is still improving. The sensory experience of eating food is subjective. Meaning, everyone has a different opinion of how food should be prepared; but there’s also a general consensus about how the basics of things like making a hamburger should work.

A raw steak, which is difficult to replicate in a lab.

Progress is being made when it comes to churning out new lab grown dishes that satisfy our needs for taste and texture alongside the idea behind meat; a protein-rich food that also connects us with our more “primal” needs.

The meat and dairy industries have deep pockets. Animal agriculture isn’t just raising cattle or chickens in a barn – it’s a highly complex network of infrastructure built upon decades of marketing, research, and lobbying. If the advertising campaigns waged against companies like Beyond Meat are anything to go off, there will surely be opposition to this fledgling technology.

Convincing people to change their opinion of plant based meat (PDF) is hard enough, and the meat industry doesn’t make it any secret that they understand how to manipulate people. Here’s one of my favorite meat industry documentaries on YouTube:

When threatened, meat lobbying from within the animal agriculture industry expands – much of which manifests itself as the spread of fabricated, misleading information along the lines of climate change denial.

Meat made in lab vats is often considered gross or unethical. The idea behind meeting our needs for meat via growing it without harming a living animal sounds great, but will it actually be a popular product? Considerable amounts of research has been done studying this exact question, and the results tend to vary.

Cultured meatballs over spaghetti made by Ivy Farm Technologies.

In some cases, a majority of people claim that while they’ll try it once or twice they don’t plan on eating it regularly, with men being the most receptive to the idea. The recurring theme with all of these studies is that once people are educated on the topic, their opinion tends to shift towards being more accepting of it.

Is lab grown meat vegan?

Veganism is about more than not eating meat – it’s a philosophy centered around ending our reliance on using animals to benefit ourselves. Depending on how one defines exploitation, however, cultivated meat may or may not be considered vegan. Regardless, animals are going to be involved in the process.

A herd of cattle grazing near a waste-polluted stream.

This complicates the ethical debate, which you can easily see on display within online vegan communities. If you follow the topic online, you’ll likely come across a split in the community: those who believe that using or harming animals in any capacity (like harvesting them for cells) should be discouraged, and those who view it as a way to stop slaughtering so many animals each year.

Final thoughts

Lab grown beef and chicken nuggies are hitting the shelves all over, testing the resolve of vegans and the curiosity of foodies everywhere.

With the potential to change up the meat game forever and solve some of the most pressing environmental concerns of our lifetime, there’s a definite potential of overhyping this new and exciting technology.

What’s your take on cellular meat manufacturing?

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