Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV.
In June, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted permission to two businesses to sell their lab-grown meat products in the country. The two California-based companies, Upside Foods and GOOD Meat, Inc. will be selling chicken that has been cultivated in a lab. Lab-cultured or cultivated meats are animal meat and flesh that are generated by directly cultivating animal cells. This form of manufacturing does away with the necessity to farm and raise animals for sustenance in the way humans have traditionally done. Because the cell types that make up cultivated meat may be arranged in an order that is identical to or close to that of animal tissues, it is said that the cultivated meat can mimic the sensory and nutrient profiles of conventional meat.
However, despite the buzz and hype built around the industry, several factors indicate that lab-grown meat may be unnecessary, unsafe, and counterproductive.
The story begins back in 2013. Around that time, the idea of lab-grown meat started gaining traction when the world’s first lab-grown meat was served in London by Mosa Meats. The concept of eating lab-grown has been advertised as a slaughter-free and environmentally friendly way to enjoy meat. Since then, many big names such as Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tyson Foods, and others have invested in lab-grown meat companies and have encouraged nations to switch to synthetic lab-grown meat. The industry has billions of dollars in venture capital backing.
But don’t get it twisted; the way that the lab-grown meats are created is questionable. The meat is made in industrial bioreactors using immortalized cell lines. An immortalized cell line is a collection of cells from a multicellular organism that, in the absence of mutation, may continue to divide even though they would typically not be able to grow indefinitely. These cell lines are technically precancerous and, in some instances, fully cancerous. To be fair, some cancer researchers have concluded that because the cells are not human cells, humans cannot get cancer from them, but there is still cause for concern.
For instance, there is still no concrete public data on the nutritional value of any of these products. Additionally, because the products are so new and groundbreaking in nature, there are no long-term studies to prove the safety of consuming them.
People choosing to eat lab-grown meat would most likely due so because they are against animal cruelty and/or are concerned with carbon emissions from natural animals, energy, and climate change. The latter selling points have been touted as an important reason that lab-grown meat is needed. Lab-grown meat is thought to need fewer resources such as water and emit fewer greenhouse gasses.
However, a recent analysis by a group of researchers at the University of California, Davis, has damaging implications for the supposed climate-friendly process of growing meat in labs. The study was a life-cycle assessment comparing the greenhouse gasses released during the production of lab-grown meat compared to the gasses emitted by producing real beef. It found that laboratory-produced meat produced using the current methods has four to twenty-five times more global warming capacity than regular retail beef.
“Our findings suggest that cultured meat is not inherently better for the environment than conventional beef. It’s not a panacea,” said co-author Edward Spang, professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology. “It’s possible we could reduce its environmental impact in the future, but it will require significant technical advancement to simultaneously increase the performance and decrease the cost of the cell culture media.”
According to the researchers, it would be more beneficial to spend money on improving the efficiency of current animal farms in order to reduce their impact on the environment, as this may result in larger decreases in emissions sooner than this nascent business of lab-grown meat can.
Additionally, there is not a huge market and demand for lab-grown meat. In various polls, it has been shown that most consumers do not and would not want to eat lab-grown meat. In fact, consumers overwhelmingly want lab-grown meat to have distinct clear labeling as such to distinguish it from regular meat.
Whatever consumer market is left for lab-grown meat also has another reason to choose real meat. Lab-grown meat is more expensive to produce and therefore would be more expensive for consumers to purchase. In 2020, chemical engineer David Humbird did an analysis of how much money and energy would need to be put into producing a pound of lab-grown meat versus regular meat. He estimated that if producing a pound of lab-grown meat costs $17 (this is the minimum) that price quickly becomes $40 per pound for the consumer.
The market for lab-grown meat does not seem promising for all of the reasons above. Although billions have been invested to bring the concept to fruition, it may not last long once the products do hit the grocery shelves. I predict that they will meet the same fate as the overhyped fad of the plant-based meats industry, which has seen a decline in revenue in recent years. If there’s any hope in reducing climate change’s negative effects through food consumption, the best thing we can do is change the way farms are engineered. Lab-grown meat is not the answer.
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