Should vegans support lab grown meat? Dr Justine Butler goes back to the laboratory to see if cultured meat can end factory farming.
A few years ago, I visited a meat cell-culture laboratory in Holland with Viva! founder Juliet Gellatley.
Having worked as a molecular biologist, the laboratory environment was familiar to me. But as a long-term vegan, the pink mushy cells growing in a Petri dish may as well have been from another planet!
At first, it looked like science fiction, meat grown in a laboratory? But cultured ‘lab’ meat is now a very real prospect.
In December 2020, ‘chicken bites’, produced by the US company Eat Just, passed safety reviews. They were subsequently launched in a Singapore restaurant retailing at around £13 for a set meal.
Eat Just are aiming to make the product available in other restaurants in Singapore next year and in retail stores by late 2022.
The last few years have seen the technologies used to create cultured meat advance rapidly.
In fact, some reports suggest that by 2025, lab meat may make up around 10% of all alternative protein sources. This is along with plant-based sources and mycoprotein (such as Quorn).
Cultured 'chicken bites' passed safety reviews and were launched in a Singapore restaurant
The history of lab grown meat
Lab meat first came to the world’s attention in 2013, when scientist Mark Post and food technician Peter Verstrate unveiled the world’s first cultured beef burger at a busy press conference in London.
Created by growing cow cells rather than slaughtering an animal, this burger took years of research and cost over £200,000 to make.
Their Maastricht-based company, Mosa Meat, is now working to expand the production of the burgers and make them more affordable.
The race is on, with companies around the world developing cultured chicken, beef, pork and fish products.
In addition, there are huge opportunities for companies developing non-leather materials for shoes, bags, furniture and so on.
How is lab grown meat made?
- A peppercorn-size sample of muscle cells is taken from an animal under anaesthesia (the animal is not killed).
- The cells are fed a growth medium, a broth of nutrients, growth factors and water, in which they multiply by trillions.
- The muscle cells naturally merge together and form muscle tissue, from which burgers or steaks can be made.
- From one tissue sample, 80,000 burgers may be made.
One of the stumbling blocks to producing ‘clean meat’ was that the original medium used to grow the cells utilised largely foetal bovine serum (FBS).
The issue with this is that it contains serum taken from the hearts of live calf foetuses.
In 2019, Mosa Meat announced they had developed a medium that does not contain any animal components and last year.
Didier Toubia, co-founder and CEO at Aleph Farms in Israel, explained: “Our growth medium does not include any component obtained from animals”.
Encouragingly, other companies have now achieved this too.
Environmental benefits of lab grown meat
Worldwide, over 70 billion animals a year are killed for food. Cultured meats offer the astounding potential to save animals’ lives and could herald the end of factory farming.
It also offers enormous environmental benefits because cultured meat is substantially less damaging than livestock farming.
Livestock farming requires vast amounts of land, water, food and other resources which have a devastating impact on the environment.
Farming also produces harmful greenhouse gases and uses lots of antibiotics. This in turn contributes to the rise in deadly, antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
Animal agriculture is a main driver of the climate crisis. All major health bodies agree that we must drastically reduce meat consumption in order to avoid a major environmental catastrophe.
Interestingly, a report found that cultured meat production could achieve 96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 99% lower land use, 96% lower water use and 45% less energy than conventional meat.
Resistance and disease in factory-farmed meat
Lab meat will greatly reduce the escalating risk of antibiotic resistance and zoonotic diseases that jump from animals to humans. Some of these zoonotic diseases include bird flu, swine flu, BSE, and Covid-19.
Scientists have been warning for years that the world’s insatiable hunger for meat is placing us at an increased risk of future pandemics.
Three in four new and emerging infectious diseases come from animals, and livestock farming lies at the heart of the problem.
Factory farms are breeding grounds for disease, but also places of sheer horror and misery.
Juliet says: “Looking through the eyes of a farmed animal, it would be better for all earthlings if cultured meat replaced animal slaughter.”
Times are changing
More people than ever are going vegan over concerns for animal welfare, the environment and health.
The meat industry is feeling the pinch and the propaganda is ramped up. Just look at the new wave of Red Tractor TV adverts trying to convince us that red meat is healthy!
It smacks of desperation. The scale of the problem is still immense, but the tide is definitely turning.
The value of meat-producing companies is falling as investors move to support more sustainable products, such as plant-based foods and lab meat.
A new report predicts that Europe and the US will reach peak meat consumption by 2025. This is due to the rise of plant-based alternatives and cultured meat.
After that, they say, meat consumption will fall.
Lab grown meat is not vegan and its development hasn’t been cruelty-free by any stretch.
However, many (but not all) CEOs of cultured meat companies are vegan and want to help save animals as well as the environment.
As people’s hearts and minds change, the growth of vegan foods and cultured meat will inevitably work alongside one another towards the goal of ending factory farming and slaughter.
I won’t be trying it myself, but if it saves animals, I am convinced it can only be a good thing!
Ready to fight against climate change? Find out how eating a vegan diet can help combat climate change!