Will burger lovers choose meat grown in a lab over conventional meat? (Image credit: Pexels)
An open field where plump, well-fed livestock waddle their way through the grass under the eye of honest, local farmers — that’s how people like to envision where their meat comes from.
The reality, however, is that most of the beef consumed in the U.S. comes by way of an industrialized system that confines cows to small pens in vast feedlots, where they are fattened with hormone-laced grains before being shipped away for slaughter in what are essentially meat factories.
The industrial system makes meat products more affordable, but not particularly humane — and that’s beside the environmental costs and health concerns about meat-centric diets. Agriculture contributes to about 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, destroys natural habitats and pollutes water worldwide.
Yet people are reluctant to give up their steaks and chickens. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, beef and poultry consumption hit record highs in 2018, with the average American eating over 200 pounds of meat. But soon, meat lovers will have a new option for satisfying their cravings — one that involves neither open fields nor industrial slaughterhouses: laboratory-produced meat.
Until recently, the idea of lab-grown meat was constrained to a distant, futuristic realm, but by the end of 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration announced a joint agreement to oversee the production of cell-cultured meat. And if manufacturers succeed in driving down current sky-high production costs, you may soon see lab-grown meat not just in fancy restaurants, but on grocery store shelves, too.
Advocates tout lab-grown meat (they prefer to call it “clean meat,” for marketing reasons) as a much more sustainable alternative to the current industrial system. Still, consumers remain skeptical. In a 2017 study published in Public Library of Science, nearly two-thirds of people surveyed were willing to try clean meat, but only one in three was willing to eat it regularly as a replacement for conventional meat. Some were skeptical of the taste and appeal of lab-grown meat while others cited safety or health concerns.
The survey also found many people had little or no understanding of what clean meat actually is. To clear up some of those misconceptions, here are some basics about lab-grown meat.
How is clean meat made?
The idea of growing cells outside of a living body has been around since the 19th century and used in everything from tissue preservation and vaccine production to chemical safety testing and much more. But it wasn’t until 2013 that the first lab-grown burger was unveiled to the world by Mark Post, a vascular physiology professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
Start-ups have since raced to perfect the technology. Companies including JUST, Memphis Meat, and Mosa Meat each use a slightly different technique but the basic concept is the same: begin with a stem cell from a live animal.
“All meat starts with cells,” explains Parendi Birdie, a research associate and member of the cell development team at JUST. “And for these cells to grow, they require nurture in order to naturally grow as they would in a cow, chicken or pig.”
Developers feed the extracted cell salts, sugars and amino acids so it can grow and multiply via hundreds of cell divisions. The cells created can be of different lineages — muscle cells, fat cells or tissues — allowing producers to create different types of meat such as steak or chopped burger.
So is it really meat?
Well, sort of. Clean meat is made from stem cells extracted from real, live animals. There are all sorts of ways to extract them, including a conventional surgical biopsy. They can even be extracted from the feather of a bird, according to Isaac Emery, a senior environmental scientist at The Good Food Institute, a non-profit organization that helps companies develop clean meat products.
However, not everyone agrees that the product should be labeled as meat. Food safety expert Catherine Hutt, a former assistant administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, advocates a cautious approach with clear labelling. “It’s about transparency for the consumer,” she says, “in order to make sure that the consumer knows [whether] they’re choosing this cell-based meat-like product, or an actual meat product.”
But Birdie argues that all that matters is the taste, and that, in her experience, clean meat tastes just like the real thing. At tastings with potential investors and consumers, she says, “when they actually eat it, it tastes exactly like meat.”
Is it better for the environment?
That’s a definite yes. A 2011 study found that clean meat produces 78 to 96 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions, uses 99 percent less land and between 82 and 92 percent less water. Research at the Good Food Institute has concluded that a cell culture the size of one chicken egg can produce a million times more meat than a chicken barn stacked with 20,000 chickens, according to Emery. Energy costs, too, are much lower — and no animal parts are wasted, he adds.
“We won’t be growing the bones and the skin and the intestines that take up resources,” Emery says. “We’ll be vastly more efficient in the land we use.”
How much will it cost?
Experts say cost is the main obstacle standing between consumers and clean meat products.
In 2013, the first clean burger cost $325,000. While the price has decreased dramatically since then, current estimates range from $363 to $2,400 per pound, making it much more expensive than regular meat. (A pound of conventionally produced lean ground beef costs less than $6. Organically raised beef typically costs about a dollar more.)
JUST’s Birdie says the company is pushing hard to drive down production costs. “How do we make these products in order to compete with the price of a Big Mac?” she asks.
The biggest expense, she says, is protein used to feed the cells as they grow. In an effort to improve cost efficiency, JUST has developed a robotic platform capable of screening thousands of proteins to find the best at spurring growth, she says.
How soon can I try some?
Depending on where you live and your willingness to pay a very expensive restaurant tab, you may be able to try some clean meat in 2019. While JUST promises a product in the coming months, it’s a ‘limited-edition release,’ and likely available only at select restaurants.
Through his work with various producers, Emery says he expects that clean meat will be in the supermarket within two to five years, and could be as inexpensive as conventional meat in a decade.
Former USDA official Hutt, however, is less optimistic. She argues that the process behind food regulation takes a long time, and expects the debate behind labeling clean meat to drag on.
“The federal regulatory system moves slowly, deliberately,” she says. “It’s a process that takes time… the federal government is doing what it needs to do to protect the consumer.”
Emery is confident that once clean meat is available in stores, consumers will be blind to the difference. “People are driven by the same factors when we buy food, and that’s price, taste and convenience,” he says. “Once clean meat is being produced, and it’s in the restaurants and grocery stores we usually go to, there will be a lot less concern about what it’s called and where it came from.”