There is a growing debate around the world on lab grown meat, also called cultured meat, in vitro meat, artificial meat, cellular meat, synthetic meat or cell-based meat. The Italian government has recently proposed a bill to ban it, claiming it is threatening the country’s food culture. Some say it will save the planet, while others are sceptical about its use, necessity and ethics.
1. What is lab grown meat and how is it made?
Lab grown meat is exactly what the name says, meat that is grown in a lab. Unlike plant-based or other meat replacement products, cultured meat is actually from animal origin. It is made with animal cells that instead of developing on a cow or on a pig are grown in an artificial environment.
[Cultured meat is] taking cells from animals that normally produce meat for us and using those cells as the powerhouse to grow the meat outside of the animal.David Kaplan, Director of the Tufts University Center for Cellular Agriculture
Stem cells, that then have the ability of developing in any kind of tissue, are harvested from fertilized eggs, recently slaughtered animals or living ones, via biopsy. The cells are then placed in a culture environment to reproduce, which means sterile conditions in a nutrient rich solution, containing sugars, vitamins and amino acids.
While for testing and research purposes these can be petri dishes, the industry has evolved to a point where the meat is actually grown in large steel vats, similar to the ones used for brewing beer. One start-up in Israel has even gone as far as to develop a 3D printing steak machine.
Most harvested cells only have the ability to multiply about 30-50 times until fresh animal tissue is needed again. However, David Kaplan, director of the Tufts University Center for Cellular Agriculture, is trying to develop “immortalised” cells, which would have the ability to replicate indefinitely, thus creating an endless supply.
2. Regulation and safety
Singapore was the first country in the world to legalise lab grown meat. After a two-year safety review, the city-state approved, on 2 December 2020, the “chicken bites”, produced by Eat Just, for commercial use. Only two and a half weeks later, on 19 December, the “1880” restaurant was already serving the cultured chicken to its customers.
In the US, Upside Foods and Good Meats have just received approval from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) for the production and sale of synthetic chicken. The two companies have partnered with Bar Crenn, in San Francisco, and China Chilcano, in Washington DC, respectively, hoping to upscale to other animal meats and ultimately sell to restaurants and supermarkets across the country.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is also considering cell-based agriculture, especially cultured meat and cultured seafood, as a promising and innovative solution to help achieve the objectives of the farm to fork strategy for fair, safe, healthy and environmentally friendly food systems. However, producers have to go through an 18-month testing period before receiving approval for selling to consumers and, so far, no company has applied for authorisation.
3. Environmental debate
Lab grown meat is generally considered the solution to environmental concerns of traditional agriculture. Being able to reproduce the exact same taste and smell of animal products, albeit textures are still in the working, the industry could drastically reduce land use needed for livestock. Supporters of cultured meat also suggest it resolves the problem of greenhouse gases emitted by breeding livestock, however, researchers point out that the amount of energy currently needed for producing lab grown meat far exceeds emissions from producing traditional meat.
Lab meat doesn’t solve anything from an environmental perspective, since the energy emissions are so high.Marco Springmann, Senior environmental researcher at the University of Oxford
“So much money is poured into meat labs, but even with that amount of money, the product still has a carbon footprint that is roughly five times the carbon footprint of chicken and ten times higher than plant-based processed meats”, said Marco Springmann, a senior environmental researcher at the University of Oxford. Companies that want to produce cultured meat at industrial levels thus must rely on renewable energy, which becomes a whole other debate.
4. Upscaling challenges
Besides energy, the nutrients needed to feed the cells pose another problem, as they are not currently available in industrial scales. A whole new industry will therefore need to develop before lab grown meat can become widely available.
Lastly, the cost of producing meat in a lab is still too high to consider commercialisation. The first cultured meat burger, served at a news conference in London in 2013, cost $330,000 to make. David Humbird, a chemical engineer who wrote a report in 2020 questioning the viability of synthetic meat, found that, in 2018, the price per unit for lab grown beef was 8.5 times higher than regular beef.
On the other hand, a pound of ground, cultivated beef costing $17 to produce “quickly becomes $40 at the grocery store — or a $100 quarter-pounder at a restaurant”, reported Joe Fassler. While still pricy, the improvement it outstanding compared to the $330,000 in 2013.
The industry is still in its infancy and, like with any other technology ever developed, time, research and investment are needed to achieve wide scale production. Whether or not labs will replace fields remains to be seen, but it is not a possibility that should be completely ruled out. After all, how many of the products we now use on a daily basis did our grandparents even imagine?