Two companies have claimed that their lab-made meat products will be on supermarket shelves by the end of the year. Whether you like the idea or not, meat made by scientists through cellular agriculture is here. So will it save the world, or will it be a failed fad?
In order to make cultured meat, technicians take a biopsy sample of tissue cells from a living animal and encourage the cells to divide by providing an environment (constant temperature and a growth medium containing essential nutrients) similar to inside the animal’s body. Once these cells start dividing, they spread along the (edible or degradable) 3D ‘scaffolds’ on which they’re grown, gradually forming whichever form of tissue you were intending (eg. muscle or fat).
The product is not a sentient being (there are no nerve cells), and it is not a GMO (it’s neither an organism nor genetically modified). It’s also not an imitation of an animal product made from plants. It is meat. It’s just produced in a way we’re not used to. So, why do it now?
The potential benefits of meat made without raising and killing animals are seriously impressive, and it’s no surprise that big-name investors have already injected a lot of money into the research. Conventional livestock agriculture (especially beef) is a poster child of unsustainability and human-induced climate change. Therefore, the theoretical claim that large-scale in vitro meat production would contribute about 95% fewer greenhouse gases, take up 99% less land, and use 90% less water than livestock farming (according to an Oxford University study) is tantalising.
The term clean meat also refers to the belief that in vitro meat, cultured in a controlled environment away from the threat of intestinal animal diseases, is literally a cleaner, safer way of growing meat. It eliminates the need for antibiotics (and the associated problem of antibiotic resistance) and chemical fertilisers, and it dramatically reduces the risk of E. coli, bird flu, and other animal-borne disease outbreaks. There’s also potential to enrich and improve the nutritional value of meats – such as replacing unhealthy saturated fats with essential omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.
However, all is not perfect in the clean meat world. The first stumbling block (despite dropping drastically over the past 5 years) is the exorbitant cost – especially the cost of sourcing a steady supply of the nutrient-rich growth medium – combined with the uncertainty over whether enough people would actually buy cultured meat to make it economically viable to make.
The next obstacle is taste and texture. Although we have seen media-friendly photos of gourmet products like chorizo, canard a l’orange, and foie gras made in a petri dish, lab-made meat has a long-held reputation for being dry and bland. Scientists are still struggling to replicate things like the fat-muscle-bone marbling structure of steak and the natural system of blood vessels that deliver oxygen to tissue cells and make meat juicy.
And that’s only talking about the product in the lab, not its uncertain path onto our plates. As well as all the regulatory approval procedures, legal hurdles and powerful agricultural lobbies, perhaps the biggest roadblock to cultured meat going mainstream is the personal views and beliefs of its potential consumers. It’s an existential shakeup we might not be ready for.
For one thing, it isn’t yet clear how enthusiastically people who currently don’t eat animal products will take to clean meat. Most production techniques so far have relied on the use of an animal-based serum to culture the cells, and even if there were no animal products involved at any step of the process, that doesn’t mean someone repulsed by the idea of eating another being’s flesh will suddenly change their mind. People who don’t eat meat for religious reasons won’t suddenly gorge on animal flesh, either, since that is still exactly what cultured meat is. The dietary laws of the Torah and Quran are based on the slaughter of animals, so is it technically even possible to have kosher and halal lab-made (and therefore slaughter-free) meat?
Also, are we sure that harvesting and manipulating animal cells to grow unnatural versions of natural things is really as ethically clear-cut and ‘clean’ as we think, simply because no sentient being gets harmed and no body is desecrated? Following this way of thinking could lead us to some creepy, unsavoury conundrums down the line – like breaking the taboo of eating human meat, as Richard Dawkins has asked. In 2014, biotech company BiteLabs announced they would be creating gourmet salami out of the cultured muscle cells of famous people. The campaign went viral, with thousands of social media users encouraging their favourite celebrities to donate cells. It was surely a joke. But it shows how we’re flirting with questions and conundrums we’re not used to facing.
Even if cultured meat companies plan to move out of scientific research facilities and into factories (with large bioreactors similar to fermenting tanks at breweries), surveys suggest that a decent proportion of people are iffy about the idea of eating anything that’s seen to have come from a lab. To a lot of people, regardless of its advantages, cultured meat is a definite step further away from the wholesome, traditional, organic methods of pre-industrial agriculture that many of us are urging a return to. It’s a step closer towards the Matrix world of grey sludge, containing all the nutrients we need to survive but none of the enjoyment of living. Gimme the blue pill.
Going all-in on cultured meat may, however, bring a lasting peace between two traditional enemies: environmentalists and industrialists. Most environmental campaigners have long argued that sustainable organic farming and artisan production, de-centralised from a small number of giant corporations and massive factories that control a lot of the food system, have been our main hope for the future. But, given the technology, equipment, and scientific expertise required to make cultured meat feasible on a big enough scale to make a noticeable environmental impact, we would most likely become even more reliant on an even smaller number of big companies than we are now. That’s a hard, red pill for die-hard environmentalists to swallow.