Should vegans support the lab-grown meat revolution?

Whilst the vegan community would welcome any reduction in the number of animals being killed for food, lab-grown meat cannot be defined as vegan because animal products are used in the early stages of the process. The tissue has no consciousness or central nervous system to experience life or feel pain, but it is not strictly true to say that no animals are exploited or harmed during its creation.

Trading a few lives for the many?

The death toll pales in comparison to that of the livestock industry, but animals do still need to be slaughtered for most lab-grown meat. Stem cells from slaughtered adult animals are needed as starter cells to begin the replication process. These then need to be cultivated within a growth medium similar to the environment of an animals body, with the most commonly used being fetal serum from unborn calves or foals. The extraction process is not for the faint hearted.

However, with the rapid pace of technology in this space, even the use of fetal growth serum could soon become a relic of the past. Plant based growth serums are being developed and have already been adopted already by some start-ups at the forefront of the lab grown meat revolution. On top of this, there are possibilities where a biopsy for a single starter cell could be enough to make a self-renewing line, meaning just one cell could go on to produce thousands of tons of meat.

If we reach a point where there is no fetal calf serum and only a single starter cell needed from a painless biopsy – is there anything for vegans to object to? Opinion will vary and levels of enthusiasm may depend on why somebody vegan in the first place.

People turn to veganism for a variety of reasons

Those who gave up meat for ethical or environmental reasons probably fall into the category of ‘guilty carnivores’. For people in this group, lab-grown meat is great as it means they can consume meat again whilst knowing they’re not contributing to the livestock industry. Some simply lose the taste for meat and can even feel unwell from the taste after many years of abstaining, but plenty would be happy to have an option that satisfied their ethical code.

It’s a little more complicated for those who have an ethical aversion to any form of animal consumption. These people can’t or don’t want to eat meat in the first place, so they wouldn’t be interested in eating lab-grown meat even it could be classed as vegan. They may support it in principle though, if it results in fewer animal deaths and has a knock-on effect to other areas of animal exploitation such as the cosmetics, leather, and fur industries.

Are vegan meat alternatives just preaching to the converted?

There are some genuinely vegan options on the market now, such as the ‘Impossible Burger’ which is made from wheat and potato proteins. The special ingredient which gives the burger it’s ‘bleed’, sizzle, and meaty flavour is Heme, a protein found in all living things. Fats in the burger come from coconut and soya, and the binding agents are completely plant-based.

The Impossible Burger is already served in some major restaurants and will be hitting supermarkets in 2019. It has good reviews – people say it’s an extremely good vegan burger, although you can still tell it’s not quite the real thing. It might be enough to turn some conscious carnivores, but is it enough to make an impact on the global population of meat-eaters?

The whole world turning vegan simply isn’t going to happen. To make an impact on a global scale, there needs to be a genuine replica of meat that can provide the same taste, texture, and smell as the real thing. That’s what I’ll be writing about next – as it’s the overwhelming number of carnivores that need converting to the lab-grown meat cause.

This series is exploring questions about lab-grown meat. I’ve already talked about whether lab-grown meat will be healthy, ethical, and environmentally friendly. All views expressed are my own.