Ever since the dawn of time, meat has meant the flesh of another animal - usually pig, cow, chicken, poultry, game, or anything else our ancestors could get their hands on. However, lab-grown meat is overturning that trend - for the first time in history, we are able to produce meat without killing a single animal. The secret? Cultured meat. And it is garnering a lot of attention - of both skeptics and enthusiasts alike.
Lab-grown meat, also known as cultured meat, is a term used to describe meat products that are made in a laboratory from a cell culture rather than from the raising and slaughtering of livestock.
Biologically, cultured or lab-grown meat and traditional meat are exactly the same. The only difference is how the meat - or muscle tissue - came to be. In the case of lab-grown meats, these are cultured from a cell line and harvested in the lab - no need for any outside involvement (or slaughter) of livestock. Conversely, traditional meats come from animals raised and killed for the sole purpose of feeding people.
Lab-grown meat also goes by a wide array of other names, such as clean meat, lab-grown meat, cellular agriculture, or in-vitro meat. This emerging sector aims to disrupt conventional ways of producing animal products, with the goal of reducing the number of animals killed for food as well as creating a more sustainable and ethical global food system.
Lab-grown meat is made from the cell lines of their original animals - lab-grown beef comes from a line of cow cells, lab-grown chicken comes from a line of chicken cells, etc - all without the slaughter.
For this reason, the issue of whether lab-grown meat can be considered vegetarian falls into somewhat of a gray area. Whether lab-grown meat is seen as veggie will vary from person to person and largely depends on that individual's reasons for going veggie in the first place.
Some argue that because no animals are killed in the process, but are instead only used for the original cell culture, it is ok for vegetarians to eat. Getting these cells from a painless biopsy is no different from retrieving milk from a cow or eggs from a chicken.
Others maintain that eating meat is bad, full stop, as consuming animal flesh is in itself bad karma, or somehow unclean. Those staying off meat for religious reasons for example might vary greatly in their approach to this issue.
What is clear-cut though is the issue of veganism - this meat culturing process still relies on initial biopsies taken from an animal, so they are not totally written out of the equation. Veganism does not stand for the exploitation of animals in any form, so lab-grown meat would likely be off the menu.
Lab-grown meat relies on cell cultivation In order to procure these cells in the first place, a painless biopsy must be taken from a living animal. However, one biopsy can be cultured into a significant amount of muscle tissue, so relatively few samples are needed for the final output achieved.
The cell sample must be taken from the relevant animal - from cows for beef, pigs for pork, etc.
When taking the biopsy, researchers have to be sure they are taking the animal's stem cells - the building blocks of all other tissue in the body - or primary cells, cells that have already finished developing and can proliferate into more of what they are.
There is a trade-off to consider here - rate of proliferation vs differentiation.
Primary cells are already differentiated into muscle cells, so when they multiply, you have more ready-made muscle cells. However, they reproduce at a slightly slower rate than stem cells. Conversely, stem cells exist in an undifferentiated state, meaning they need to convert themselves from building block cells into muscle cells - a process which is not without its risks and flaws. The upside to stem cells is that they reproduce much more quickly.
Once the cells are safely selected and in the lab, they are placed into culture dishes and bathed in a growth medium. They are placed in big bioreactors along with this mixture and left to grow until they resemble meat.
The growth medium includes amino acids, carbohydrates like sugar, vitamins, and in the case of stem cells, certain critical biochemical factors that help dictate how and when they differentiate into muscle cells.
Throwing a bunch of bricks into a pile does not make a building. You need a framework, a structure that these bricks cling to in order to build something cohesive. The same is true for cells. A blob of muscle cells does not make a steak.
At the moment, most lab-grown meat exists and is developed in this unstructured way - which is fine for mimicking dished originally made from ground meat, such as nuggets or burger patties - however, in order to create more "organized" cuts of meat like a steak, things get a little more complicated.
In the body, cells use several different compounds as biological scaffolding. One popular choice is collagen. The quest to find a suitable alternative to collagen has led down some interesting experimental pathways, though without yielding any resounding successes so far.
Some attempts have included hollowing out spinach and artichoke leaves, leaving only their structures behind, or printing long strings of starch onto LEGO blocks. Gelatin, mushroom roots, and textured soy protein have all been tried as well.
While this is still in the research and development phase, there are several groups working on cracking the "holy grail" of making the world's first lab-grown steak.
Lab-grown meat is a scientific development that is exciting for many because of its potential to provide an in-demand product for a fraction of the environmental cost. To understand this, it is important to lay the ground with some preliminary information about the current state of meat and its production.
Animal agriculture accounts for 18% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. That's more than the transportation sector, including all cars, trains, boats, airplanes, and all other vehicles around the world. Additionally, animal agriculture uses a quarter of the earth’s land and 30% of the world's freshwater supply.
Eliminating animals from meat production instantly also alleviates the majority of these problems. It becomes instantly apparent why cultured or lab-grown meat is such an appealing prospect.
Comparing the resources required to produce a 230g steak are as follows:
Producing the same 230g "steak" from cultured meat would require:
When compared with conventional meat, cultured meat is less environmentally harmful, produces a safer and purer product, and ensures a more consistent supply.
In addition to the resource-saving benefits outlined previously, cultured meat carries a few more benefits:
Probably the biggest advantage lab-grown meat carries over conventional meat - it is possible to virtually eliminate a lot of food borne pathogens that plague traditional meats. Most bacterial contaminations that cause food-borne illnesses, such as E. coli and salmonella, often occur through interactions with infected animal feces. By removing livestock from the farming equation, you're effectively cutting out the risks associated with these microorganisms and antibiotics entirely.
The perk of making meat in a lab is that their nutritional profiles can be tweaked to benefit human health. For example, replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats, making an egg with no cholesterol, or creating lactose-free milk. Beyond food, this technique could be used to make leather of varying thicknesses, too.
If we do not require livestock for dairy and meat production, we will use significantly fewer animals in agricultural processes. With the global demand for meat only going up, continuing to produce meat the way it is currently being done will only lead to increased production pressure and lower and lower standards of living for the animals involved. Cultured or lab-grown meat alleviates a lot of this pressure by providing an alternative meat production method that does not rely on animals.
While lab-grown meat has great potential to overturn some long-standing ethical and environmental issues that traditional meat has faced, the main obstacle it will need to overcome is regulatory.
As of March 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that they agreed to oversee the production of lab-grown meat - a huge leap forward for the product, getting it slowly but surely on the path to commercial viability.
Something that remains to be seen is how this meat will be labelled. There are very strict rules around what foods can and cannot be labelled as - arguing for example that the definition of "meat" should exclude the lab-grown kind, despite the fact that it is biologically identical to the slaughtered kind. However, there is a concern that labelling in this way may lead to consumer confusion and public misconception about what this lab-grown meat actually is.
In conclusion, lab-grown meat is a significant breakthrough for the scientific community, agriculturalists, and the eco-conscious consumer - whether vegetarian or not. Several research groups have already taken to producing cultured meats, and it is only a matter of time before they become commercially available.
Cultured or lab-grown meat requires a fraction of the land, water, and energy costs needed to cultivate traditional meat using our current methods. Lab-grown meat is an excellent opportunity to meet a growing demand for animal products while relieving much of the environmental and animal welfare strains our current production systems suffer from.
In any case, it will be very interesting to see what public perception of these products will be once they finally hit supermarket shelves. But until then, we will have to wait and see.
Read more alternative meat sources: Plant-Based Meat: Is this the Future of Food?