Lab meat: Miracle or mire?

Read Time:   |  18th June 2019

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Juliet Gellatley, founder of Viva!, visits Mosa Meats to discover the potential of lab-grown meat for saving animals and the world.

is lab meat vegan

The primary reason for my keen interest in lab meat is its astounding potential to save animals. While Viva! has worked incredibly hard to spark a vegan revolution in the UK, it is important to remember that over one billion land animals are killed on our island. Veganism has, however, now hit the mainstream and will continue its extraordinary growth. In 2018, the number of vegans hit two million and vegetarians and non-meat eaters sky-rocketed to almost one third of the population (Waitrose survey, 2018). But we have a way to go before convincing the entire nation and world to be vegan.

World? A staggering 74 billion land animals were killed last year worldwide for their flesh. In China, meat consumption has increased five times since the 1980s from 13kg per person to 64kg – fuelled by rising incomes rather than urbanisation. There are about 1.4 billion people in China and an almost equal number in India, where meat consumption is also rising. Alarmingly, in the USA, meat consumption was at its highest on record in 2018 with its 333 million people eating an average of 100kg of meat each.

Asking the questions

So, back to lab meat. It’s an incredibly long lever to pull to quickly reduce the numbers of animals slaughtered worldwide. It may be the only way to dramatically reduce the number of animals – and I mean by tens of billions – in our lifetime. But what of its ethics, its production, is it really close to being commercially viable and who will eat it?

Chris Bryant is a psychology researcher at the University of Bath who specialises in people’s acceptance of cultured meat – also known as in vitro, cell-grown, lab or clean meat. Together with him and Dr Justine Butler of Viva!, I visited Mosa Meats at the University of Maastricht, Holland, to try and find some answers.

is lab meat vegan

Mosa Meats was created to try and commercialise lab meat after its founder, Mark Post, unveiled the world’s first ‘slaughter-free hamburger’ to a packed press conference in London in 2013. It was grown from cow cells after years of research at Maastricht University and cost €250,000. It was funded by Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google.

So how is cultured meat produced? And what are the main ethical issues? I contacted nearly all the companies in the race to produce commercial lab meat and only two answered in any kind of detail – Mosa Meats and Aleph Farms in Israel. I was impressed with their openness.

Starting small

At Mosa Meats, cells are being cultured in two very average-looking labs and I was taken aback by the small scale production – it’s clearly nowhere near ready to launch. However, Anon van Essen, an experienced lab meat technician, told us that the company is moving to bigger premises and commercial production is only three to five years away.

Closest to launching is Memphis Meats, backed by US meat distributors Cargill and Tyson Foods, venture capitalists DFJ and Atomico, and Bill Gates and Richard Branson. They have already created meatballs, chicken strips and duck meat.

Growing serum required

The Achilles heel for lab meat is the serum in which the cells are grown – Foetal Bovine Serum (FBS). It is a topic that gets little attention, partly because those that use it are, ironically, trying to create a more humane world – those involved with lab meat and researchers using it to grow human tissue cultures rather than live animals in vivisection.

Lab meat starts with stem cells that originated from a farmed animal. And for these cells to grow, they have to be nurtured in a serum that mimics the environment inside the living animal. The extracted cells are fed sugars, salts and amino acids so they can grow and multiply via hundreds of cell divisions. The cells created can be of diff erent types, such as muscle cells, fat cells or tissues, so that various diff erent types of meat, such as steak or chicken burgers can be produced.

But biology is complex, and there are lots of additional factors that are required to produce cell metabolism and growth. Traditionally, researchers have used foetal bovine serum to supply a variety of growth factors, hormones and other components needed for cell survival. Horse serum, chick embryo extract and other sera types are also sometimes used.

is lab meat vegan

What is Foetal Bovine Serum?

FBS is as bad as it sounds – actually, worse. Serum is blood without cells, platelets or clotting factors, but is a rich source of nutrients. It is cruelly derived from the foetuses of dairy cows found to be pregnant at slaughter.

Every year, about half-a-million litres of FBS is produced worldwide from up to two million calf foetuses. After a mother cow has been slaughtered and eviscerated, her uterus, containing the foetus, is removed. A needle is inserted between the foetus’s ribs directly into his or her heart and blood is vacuumed out. Only foetuses over three months old are used, otherwise the heart is too small to puncture.

Whether or not the foetus has already died from deprivation of oxygen (anoxia) is highly contentious. Nevertheless, no anaesthesia is given. Perhaps it’s not surprising that other labs were reluctant to discuss the issue with me. They all need to produce a viable vegan medium to avoid the public’s revulsion and they don’t want to give anything away. They are not cooperating, they are competing!

Encouragingly, Didier Toubia, Co-Founder and CEO of Aleph Farms (Israel) told me: “We already use a serum-free growth medium, but it is not yet suitable for commercial production, but we are developing an improved version that is. We do not hurt animals and expect our product to be regarded as vegan, but your point of view is of interest to us! Our first release (beef steak) will probably be in three to four years, starting with restaurants and food services.”

is lab meat vegan

Uma Valeti, CEO of Memphis Meats, wouldn’t discuss whether or not they have created a viable vegan medium instead of FBS, but he has stated on Twitter: “We will never sell products that use FBS. Our products will be grown in media formulated from animal-free components.”

Anon of Mosa Meats candidly revealed: “Serum is the biggest challenge and it needs to be replaced by an animal-free medium before we can go commercial. It is difficult because cells need the proteins in FBS – it contains thousands of components and it’s hard to know which are the most vital. We have done trials with serum-free mediums, but they contain human platelet protein – animal-free but not human-free! Also, the cells do not grow as well as when using FBS.” So, will they launch commercially without a vegan serum? “No! It is not an option, we have to use an animalfree medium.” The other ethical issue, of course, is that stem cells come from animals so even when a vegan medium is used, lab meat won’t be vegan.

There are several ways to extract the cells, including surgical biopsy. They can even be extracted from the feather of a bird, according to Isaac Emery of The Good Food Institute, a non-profit organisation that helps companies develop clean meat products.

One way to avoid using animals is to develop infinite cell lines, but to do so means creating cancer-like cells, which would be tough to market! However, Anon says: “You can take a muscle biopsy without causing harm or killing an animal.”

I briefly met Mark Post, boss of Mosa Meats, who made it clear he set up the company to reduce the impact of meat eating on our planet. Most of the CEOs of other lab meat ventures are vegan and have the ‘bigger picture’ of saving animals and the environment in mind when developing lab meat. The Good Food Institute says that a cell culture the size of one egg can produce a million times more meat than a chicken shed crammed with 20,000 chickens. The potential to save billions of animals’ lives is very real.

Lab meat and the environment

Cultured meat produces 78-96 per cent lower greenhouse gas emissions, uses 98 per cent less land and 82- 92 per cent less water than animal meat, according to a 2011 study. Energy costs are also much lower as animal parts such as bones, skin and intestines aren’t grown.

This opens up huge opportunities for companies developing non-leather materials for shoes, bags, furniture and so on. Vitally, lab meat would greatly reduce the growing risk of antibiotic resistance and diseases such as bird flu, swine flu, BSE, foot and mouth and bovine TB.

Will people accept cultured meat?

Psychology researcher Chris Bryant told me: “People eat meat despite how it’s made, not because of it. Clean meat enables them to carry on eating it without killing animals. Currently, meat eaters try to validate killing animals, but once clean meat is available, their attempt to justify slaughter will disappear and that will mean the end for animal agriculture.”

‘But meat is natural’ is the old cry and the best way to counter that is to show them Viva! footage of behind the scenes at pig farms, dairy farms or chicken sheds – all far from natural, but brutally cruel and pitiless. Chris Bryant adds: “I think most people would be much more comfortable in a lab than a factory farm or slaughterhouse!”

is lab meat vegan

My view? The world is in crisis and the International Panel on Climate Change suggests we have 11 years – 20 at most – to tackle global warming before we pass the point of no return and it becomes unstoppable. The UN FAO have been crystal clear – eating meat, fish, dairy and eggs is calamitous at every level, both locally and globally.

It is abhorrent that billions of sentient beings are subjected to extreme confinement, misery and pain before having their lives wiped out every year. The EAT-Lancet commission recently released a report calling for a drastic reduction of meat and dairy for human and planetary health. And yet worldwide, people’s appetite for meat is voracious.

Viva! has done so much to bring these vital issues into the spotlight, but it is essential that our campaigning work is more widely and generously supported so that we can reach out to the entire nation. The crucial message that meat is damaging us, the planet and animals is hitting home and attitudes in the UK have changed beyond recognition.

Changing the world

We clearly need urgent global change and it’s crucial that our campaigns on animals, the planet, health and antibiotic resistance hit harder and wider and vegan, plant-based alternatives to meat, fish and dairy are available worldwide. However, researchers believe that there are a significant number of people that will not change and, for them, cultured meat may be a solution.

From a pragmatic stance, and looking through the eyes of a farmed animal, it is better for all earthlings if cultured meat, using a vegan medium, replaces animal slaughter. Do I think it should be labelled ‘vegan’? No, cultured meat isn’t vegan. And its development has hardly been crueltyfree. Obtaining FBS is clearly repulsive.

Yet, we need the human race to stop ravaging our world. As peoples’ hearts and minds are changed, the growth of vegan foods and cultured meats will work in parallel and the horrors of factory farming and slaughter will end. As people evolve, cultured meat will be replaced more and more by vegan foods and we will live in a vibrant world where we protect and celebrate life. That is why, 25 years ago I chose the name Viva! – it means LIFE.

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