What is lab-grown meat? And why should we care?

A carnivorous planet

More meat is being consumed than ever. As a global population, we consumed 300 million tonnes last year compared to 45 million tonnes in 1950. Whilst this global hunger for meat increases, so does the environmental impact, associated health issues, and the number of animals living cruel, short lives in factory farms.

Plant-based diets are becoming more popular in the western world, but not at a fast enough rate to make an impact on a global scale. As wealthy middle classes emerge in rapidly developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil, more people than ever can afford meat products that were luxuries for the generations before them.

It is more important than ever to find a realistic alternative.

An uncomfortable truth

I’ve always eaten meat, and still do. However, I’ve recently started to question why. Do I really know the story of where my food has come from? As a biology writer and animal lover, would I have the stomach to kill a pig or a cow myself? Can I continue to ignore the environmental impact of the meat industry? These are uncomfortable questions, and ones that are worryingly easy to avoid.

I’ve discussed these questions with friends, family, and colleagues, usually leading to some thoughtful contemplation and responses, but no action. We all continue eating as much meat as before. I can’t help but feel that it’s simply too easy to bury our heads in the sand and not think about the slaughterhouse, the decimated rainforests, or emptying oceans thousands of miles away.

It’s similar to the debate around fossil fuels. We know they’re bad, but we need to travel and fuel our homes. So we continue to do so – because the alternatives are more expensive and require more effort. This will change when renewable energy becomes cheaper and more accessible, and the same is true for meat.

If an ethical, healthy, environmentally friendly alternative to meat (that actually tasted like meat) existed, many of us would happily make the swap. I know I certainly would.

Lab-grown meat is science fiction though, right?

Not at all. In fact, it’s already here.

The technology to clone animals cells has existed since the early 90s, although plans to produce food on a commercial scale are a relatively recent development.

Stem cells are taken from a cow muscle and placed in a bioreactor with nutrients and growth factors designed to boost cell proliferation. A protein, usually from fetal calf serum, encourages them to grow to become muscle cells. The cells are then placed in a ‘scaffold’ gel that helps the meat grow into the desired shape.

The first lab-grown burger was made in 2013 at Maastricht University by a scientist called Mark Prost. It took him two years to make and $300, 000 to produce this single burger. Whilst lab-grown or ‘cultured’ meat is still yet to be fully commercialised, the production costs have plummeted in the six years since Prost’s prototype.

As of now, lab-grown meat only costs around ten times that of ground beef, and investors are taking notice. One biotech start-up has taken in $17m of funding from a group of investors that included Bill Gates.

Still not convinced?

The idea of lab-grown meat still fills plenty of people with trepidation. I think a big part of this is fear of the unknown. In this short series I’m going to look at some of the biggest questions surrounding cultured meat:

  1. Is it healthy?
  2. Is it ethical?
  3. Is it environmentally friendly?
  4. Can it be considered vegan?
  5. Will it genuinely convert meat-eaters?

After researching this topic, I’m genuinely excited at the prospect of affordable cultured meat arriving in our supermarkets soon. Follow this short series and I’m confident that you will too.