What is Cultured Meat?

Sharon Palmer

Cultured meat—meat grown in a laboratory—is another step toward feeding the future, but is it the right one?

The future of food is ever evolving in the most exciting—and often unbelievable—ways. Not only is it incredibly cool, it’s absolutely critical for the planet. Innovations to produce food with a softer impact on land, water, and energy use, as well as reducing or eliminating the release of greenhouse gasses are here! We’re seeing advances in plant-based agriculture—think vertical farming and hydroponics. While we know that plant-based eating is the most sustainable way we can eat, one of the most cutting-edge food technologies “creates” meat. Cultured meat is created in a laboratory and is not only biologically identical to animal meat, its carbon footprint is drastically smaller than that of conventional animal agriculture. Could this, or should this, change the way we eat?

Why Meat?

People know the heavy toll animal agriculture takes on the environment, and more and more of us are turning toward plant-based eating as a more sustainable and healthier choice. The recent sensation of plant-based burgers supports that. But it also reveals the seemingly insatiable appetite for meat. Despite research that shows eating less meat and adopting a plant-based diet is better for the planet, the demand for meat is estimated to increase by 70 to 90 percent, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

But it’s clear that modern animal agriculture is not as sustainable as it should be. As it stands, beef production uses nearly 60 percent of agricultural land between land for grazing and croplands used for production of livestock feed. Agriculture takes up 70 percent of global freshwater, 29 percent of which goes to animal production. And, says the FAO, animal production accounts for nearly 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

And then there’s the issue of animal welfare. In the effort to meet the growing demand for meat and do so at low cost, the number of animals continues to increase in a finite space. This brings to question animal treatment and crowded living conditions, which increases stress and risk of disease. Many people vote against this by not eating meat.

From this predicament came the idea of growing specific cuts of meat, without raising an entire animal. Remove the acres of land for grazing and feed production, take away the thousands of gallons of water per pound of meat over the several years it takes to raise an animal for market, and it makes for much more sustainable meat production.  

Cultured meat up close (Mosa Meats)

What is It?

It’s not an easy concept to grasp—growing a piece of meat in a petri dish! But it’s really as simple as replicating a natural process. Beginning with a small biopsy, cells are taken from the muscle of an animal—a cow, chicken, pig, or salmon, for example. The function of these stem cells in the animal is to create new muscle to replace damaged muscle. In cultured meat, the stem cells do the same thing— only it happens outside the body of the animal, in a bioreactor, which is a tank where the process of multiplying cells takes place. For this to happen, the stem cells are fed a nutrient-rich serum. When the feeding is stopped, the cells differentiate into muscle fibers that become strands of muscle tissue that then join in layers to form meat. From there, regular meat processing techniques, such as being ground into hamburger, are applied to prepare for market.

Cultured beef patty (Mosa Meats)

When Will We See It?

The first cultured meat hamburger patty was unveiled in 2013 by Dutch scientist Dr. Mark Post. It had a price tag of $300,000 and an unappealing flavor, but Post co-founded the startup, Mosa Meat to continue to improve his work on cultured beef, as well as other animal meats. Several startups all over the globe—Israel, Singapore, even San Francisco, California—have joined the lab production of many types of meat, hoping to perfect their products and increase the scale of production to bring them to market at an affordable price in the next few years.

This really could be a revolutionary technology for sustainable meat production. It takes just one sample of muscle tissue, for example, from a cow to produce 800 million muscle strands, which Mosa Meat says is enough to make 80,000 quarter pounders. This can happen in weeks compared to the years it takes to grow an animal for market. And research from Environmental Science & Technology estimates that cultured meat production would use up to 45 percent less energy, as much as 96 percent less water, and would reduce greenhouse emissions by 78-96 percent compared to conventional production. 

The challenges, however, are very real. Not only will the price have to come down, but the cost to scale up laboratories to meet commercial need is steep (although largely supported by Silicon Valley investors like Bill Gates and large meat companies like Tyson and Cargill), and the technology to build them is not yet there. In addition, the energy that would be required to run these labs could potentially be more damaging in terms of greenhouse gasses than conventional agriculture due to the type and amount of gasses released.

As with anything new, cultured meat is being received with mixed reviews—as it should be. Supporters call it “clean meat” and “slaughter-free meat” and doubters label it “fake meat” and “frankenfood.” While it may very well be a step toward more sustainable animal agriculture, one has to question whether it’s the best—or only—way.

Written by Lori Zanteson, Contributing Editor for SharonPalmer.com

Image: Cultured meat (Mosa Meats)

For other articles on sustainability, check out the following:

Sustainable Eating Explained by EAT-Lancet
6 Ways to Cut Your Food Waste
Top 5 Ways for Greening Your Plate

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