Amy Leung explores how the future of lab grown meat and what this means for our global food system.
As we grow more conscious of the impact our food has on the environment, more and more people are turning to plant-based diets. After all, it is well established that eating less meat has a variety of environmental benefits. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, meat and dairy production is responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture can lead to increased methane production from cows and increased deforestation as land is cleared for livestock to be raised on. Environmental awareness as well as the ethical and welfare concerns surrounding the killing of animals has led many people to eat less meat.
But for those who can’t quite tear themselves away from that beef burger yet, is there another solution?
Scientists say yes.
‘No-kill’ meat conjured up in a lab is the latest innovation hoping to make an appearance on our plates. While it may sound like something straight out of Frankenstein, this invention solves many of the concerns associated with eating meat.
So how exactly is lab grown meat created?
Stem cells from animals are taken and cultivated with nutrients in order to allow them to multiply in bioreactors. Over the course of a few weeks, these muscle cells will increase in number until they form enough mass to be harvested. Mosa Meat, the company who created the world’s first lab grown burger in 2013, claim they can create 80,000 burgers from the tissue sample extracted from a singular cow.
The most obvious benefit of lab grown meat is the decreased environmental damage compared to the current model of meat production through animal farming. As the technique develops, further cycles of culturing meat can use cells that have already been extracted, erasing the role of the animal completely. Thus from an animal welfare perspective, lab grown meat is guilt-free.
Cultured meat is not just a product of the future but is already arriving on our plates in the present! Only last year in 2020, the first country in the world, Singapore, legally approved cultured chicken sold by an American start up Eat Just for distribution.
However while lab grown meat is chemically identical to the real thing, will we be able to accept it as the same? As well as the science, we need to be aware of the behavioural shift that needs to take place in order for lab grown meat to be accepted into everyday diets. For some people, lab grown meat may appear to be novel and exciting, but for others it might be artificial and unnatural.
Another argument is that to truly leave the meat industry behind we should stop trying to replicate meat. Vegan and vegetarian alternatives often yield products with a jarring sensory profile compared to the original as they don’t ‘feel’ the same to eat. The cultured meat cells themselves will be translucent or white. Haemoglobin or myoglobin found in blood and muscle can be used to give the meat a red colour. Intensive research on adjusting fat levels and texture are key to perfecting the taste of lab grown meat and making it indistinguishable from traditionally sourced meat products. With scientists able to manipulate how the meat is grown, there is even the potential for its nutritional profile to be monitored and changed to increase benefits.
There’s also the money it would take to get your meal from the lab to your fork. That burger from earlier? £215,000 was invested into the research that led to its creation! But do not fear, costs have fallen dramatically as more research is carried out and startups race to create the perfect cultured meat. Economies of scale mean large-scale production is likely to reduce costs further with some predicting lab grown meat will cost as little as £4 per kg by 2030!
Lab grown meat is an exciting new alternative that promises to shake up the global food system as we know it. It certainly raises a lot of questions. Are we interfering with nature? Is this going to save the planet? Is it the physical meat product itself that matters or how it was produced? For vegetarians, especially those who base their diets on environmental or moral concerns, lab grown meat is sure to be a well debated issue.
But one thing is for sure, we’ll be seeing a lot more lab grown meat in the future.
About the Author: Amy Leung is WILD’s Food & Drink Editor and a second-year geography student at Oxford. She is interested in sustainable agriculture, plant-based diets, and being more eco-friendly at university!