Would you eat something that is grown by animal cells in the lab? Well, perhaps you should give it a shot because it’s slaughter free and it uses less land, water and energy for its production. There are a lot of challenges that we will have to overcome if we want to make clean meat a replacement for ordinary meat. The majority of people are not into lab made things because they perceive it as nasty, something that is not right, unnatural and it seems off to them. However, if we could overcome this issue, clean meat could help feed our growing population in more ethical and sustainable ways.
So, how do companies grow clean meat? First, technicians take a small amount of tissue from an animal, then filter it, and isolate cells that they can grow. That means providing warmth and oxygen as well as feeding them salts, sugars and proteins, essentially tricking the cells that they are still inside their owner. The cells naturally replicate as they would inside the body, growing to something that looks more and more like food. But, while they can grow muscle, fat and connective tissue from these starter strains, the big challenge is building them in a way that recreates the meat that you are used to.
A critical hurdle that we will have to conquer is the cost of production per kg of clean meat. Right now, there is only one company that releases their clean meat reports showing production costs of $43.000,00/kg. This is actually way cheaper than the production of lab-grown burgers (unveiled in 2013), which amounted at $750.000,00/kg. In 2015, a leading researcher in this field announced that if ideal conditions were meet, we could lower the production costs of cleat meat to $70,00/kg. This could be achieved in case we meet pharmaceutical bioreactor technology to existing tissue culture techniques. The main goal here is to match the production cost of lab-grown meat with the one of ordinary meat.
On the other hand, we lack the funding needed for basic researches in the field of cellular agriculture. The media often portrays as there are lots of studies that are being conducted in cellular agriculture, but actually there is very limited scientific attention given to this field – as of March 2016. As of today, there are no scientific disciplines, departments or institutes devoted entirely to the research and development of “biofabrication” or “cellular agriculture” as distinct areas of study. Most of researches into cellular agriculture that has been conducted, has been undertaken as isolated projects, and therefore have not been met with widespread academic interest.
The big misconception about clean meat is that it’s unnatural, and therefore unhealthy, dangerous and undesirable. If we look at it from this point of view, then all what is natural is good, healthy and desirable, and all what is unnatural it must by default be unhealthy, dangerous and bad. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. Doesn’t it? Also, if animal agriculture is considered natural, why is then cultured meat considered unnatural? Although clean meat is produced in labs, which makes it “artificial”, the end product is just as “real” as ordinary meat, therefore it doesn’t pose any greater health risk. In fact, since it’s produced in a controlled environment, clean meat is far less likely to contain harmful by-products, unhealthy fats, and foodborne pathogens than its conventional counterpart.
People are contrary to the consumption of lab-made meat because they believe it has been genetically modified. That’s far from the truth. There is no need for genetic modification at any point in the production of clean meat. However, as of today we are unable to reproduce more complex meats, such as steaks or lambs. So, in this case genetic modification might by required to help us recreate complex meats. In this case, there should be complete transparency and the public should have full access to this information, so that there is minimal concern regarding the safety of genetically modified meats.
There is however one big ethical hurdle with lab-grown meat. To culture the cells, you typically needed to feed them serum made from animal blood, which is not exactly an ideal basis for a more humane form of meat. On top of that, serum is insanely expensive and so is the final product. The first ever lab-grown burger, which was unveiled in 2013, costed around 330.000,00 USD to be grown. The goal right now is to identify a cheaper source of nutrients to feed the cells. So, if clean meat startups find a way to successfully scale up, we will soon have lab-grown meat that could be more sustainable and certainly more ethical than the stuff from factory farms.