The world’s first lab-grown burger was consumed at a London news conference in 2013. Described by one taste-tester as “close to meat, but not that juicy,” the cultured meat patty cost $330,000 to produce and wasn’t even vegetarian.
Like all other cultured meats produced to date, it was made using something called fetal bovine serum (FBS)—a byproduct of stem cells from cow fetuses usually extracted during the slaughter of pregnant cows. That may sound grisly to even the proudest of carnivores, but in reality, many of us are already benefitting from the scientific applications of FBS.
Thanks to an uncanny ability to prevent cell death, it’s become the standard ingredient in cellular agriculture—the same process used to develop vaccines, create safe insulin and, most recently, to grow new organs for transplants. “Stem cells are everywhere,” said Peter Verstrate, a food technician who worked on the development of cultured beef. “The only thing we do is take them out and tell them to multiply and to become muscle tissue.”
But it’s one thing to accept FBS-based cellular agriculture in its other forms, and quite another to accept it into our diets. Lab-grown meats may come with their own peculiar set of psychological stumbling blocks, but they may also be essential to preserving our health—and our planet.
The Meat of the Problem
Meat probably causes cancer. Processed meat definitely does, at least according to the World Health Organization. But so what, many will retort. Doesn’t everything? While it’s true every food comes with its own drawbacks, humanity’s ever-expanding meat consumption poses a few uniquely-pressing problems for the immediate future. Reducing our intake now may be crucial to combatting the most common environmental issues—the ones no one wants to confront.
Today, most animals raised for meat consumption are brought up in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), crowded farms in which animals live in confinement and their waste is often discharged into nearby waterways. In surrounding communities, the poor conditions associated with CAFOs have been found to worsen pollution and increase incidences of everything from diarrhea and burning eyes to miscarriage and congenital malformations.
Such intensive farming practices may also worsen the spread of food-borne illnesses like E. coli and swine flu. Most farms extensively employ antibiotics to prevent disease in food-producing animals, but this practice has actually given rise to new forms of dangerous, antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Meat and poultry are also the most common food sources of fatal infection, accounting for 29 percent of national food-poisoning deaths, most of them caused by salmonella and listeria. Cultured meat isn’t guaranteed to be disease-free, but bacterial infection would certainly be far less likely to occur in a sterile lab than a feces-strewn factory farm.
Despite the customary overcrowding at CAFOs, raising animals for consumption requires a lot of land to sustain itself. Livestock feed production takes up more than a quarter of all ice-free land on Earth, while 32.1 billion acres are lost annually in the conversion to cropland and pastures. Unfortunately, this continual deforestation only adds to animal agriculture’s already-sizable impact on our planet’s climate. Recent analysis found that livestock and their byproducts account for at least 32.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere each year, or a whopping 51 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
A Growing Alternative
Cultured meat doesn’t come from CAFOs, nor does it feel pain the way cattle and chickens do. Instead, it comes from cells—ideally taken via biopsy from a limited herd of donor animals—enabled by FBS to survive and grow in the absence of a larger organism or nervous system that would require far more space and energy to raise.
Though environmental effects are notoriously hard to predict, one study by researchers at Oxford and the University of Amsterdam found that switching to cultured meat production could reduce energy needs by 45 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 96 percent compared to traditional livestock production, while requiring only two percent of the area. The impacts of such a transition would be felt not just on land, but undersea as well. With more than half the planet’s fish stocks already depleted and seafood consumption continuing to increase, cultured fish meat—like the kind currently being developed by biotech company Finless Foods—could prevent further overfishing and the destruction of marine environments.
Cellular agriculture also affords us the chance to fine-tune the nutritional characteristics of meat, so researchers could design cuts of lab-grown beef free from potential carcinogens like heme iron, or replace saturated fats with healthier Omega-3 fats. Designing cultured meats that retain the specific characteristics of texture, taste and appearance we expect from the real thing will prove more difficult.
With more and more companies inching closer to releasing their own commercially-viable forms of lab-grown meat within the next few years, the price of a lab-grown burger has already plummeted down to eleven dollars per pound since that momentous 2013 taste test and is expected to become cost-competitive with standard beef within the next decade. When that happens, the biggest hurdle left for this emerging industry to clear will be that of public perception. No matter how much it may look and taste like meat, the very nature of lab-grown meat may be enough to scare away committed meat-eaters as well as vegans, disturbed by the use of animal byproducts in culturing.
That’s understandable, as cultured meat isn’t a perfect solution to the problems posed by meat consumption. A perfect solution would be if everyone on Earth converted to veganism overnight. But we live an imperfect world, in which meat is delicious and damn near irresistible, so growing it in a lab may yet be humanity’s best—and only—way forward.