Cultured Meat: Are We There Yet?
Despite the fact that many environmental organizations urge us to reduce our consumption of conventional animal products, surveys reveal that most consumers are not willing to do so. This is where many animal advocates see cultured meat as a possible solution: if we can’t get people to stop eating meat, we might be able to redirect their consumption towards an alternative that involves far less (and potentially no) animal suffering.
It’s a technology that aims to resolve problems inherent in industrial animal farming: in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, and land use, cultured meat is predicted to be far more efficient than conventional meat. As a big bonus, cultured meat claims clear superiority in terms of animal welfare, and boasts substantial public health benefits, arising from the absence of contaminants and antibiotic use during cell cultivation. Since global meat demand is anticipated to rise by 70% in the next 50 or so years because of population growth, cultured meat seems to be one feasible way to meet demand while still remaining within planetary resource boundaries.
In this paper, a team of researchers best known for producing the world‘s first cultured meat burger back in 2013, carried out a literature review on the subject of cultured meat and where it currently stands. The entire field emerged after stem cells were discovered and enabled in-vitro cell growth. Typically, stem cells are isolated from a sample taken from a living animal, cultivated in vitro into a large number of cells, and stimulated to differentiate into muscle or fat cells, depending on the isolated stem cell type.
However, cultured meat commercialization efforts face several barriers. Among the technological ones, growth medium is key. At experimental scale researchers often still use fetal bovine serum, an animal product. However, there is obviously a strong precedent for the derivation and maintenance of stem cells in serum- and animal-component-free cell culture media. So far, the cost of cell culture media has been identified as one of the major costs involved in upscaling stem cell production. On a positive note, media recycling has been increasingly investigated and could prove to be a suitable strategy to reduce costs and extend batch durations.
But it‘s not all about cells and media; bioreactors – the vessels where cell production takes place, also are in urgent need of development. The ultimate goal here is to increase the medium conversion ratio (think feed conversion in animal farming), where the amount of nutrients in the medium that are converted to edible animal tissue is maximized. To this end computer modeling of cell behavior will most definitely play a critical role, as the methodology may help researchers ensure consistent production at scale while not engaging in wasteful practices where semi-scaled up systems are run in ‘trial and error’ mode.
If you have been reading about the developments in cultured meat recently, you‘re definitely familiar with the term scaffolding. Essentially, it can be understood as the skeleton of the final meat product – it provides a support for the cells to attach to and grow on. Although usually degradable, otherwise the scaffolding must be palatable and safe to eat. Besides that, the material must be safe, economic, and readily available for large-scale production – a rather tall order which many research groups are attempting to meet. In general, the holy grail of cultured meat is a steak-like product – an attractive meat analogue of a thickness of 1 cm or more. Such a scale is far beyond current technological capabilities, thus researchers are sure that the introduction of whole cuts will come after the introduction of minced-meat type products.
Regulatory systems are already in place both in the U.S. and Europe, with aims to assure that cultured meat products entering the market are “safe, wholesome, and unadulterated”. However, societal and regulatory concerns with regards to the combination of genetic modification and cultured meat have not been addressed yet.
Another non-technical hurdle is the ongoing debate about names for cultured meat products, which will undoubtedly impact the upcoming industry. The naming of such products will play a key role in consumer acceptance, a necessary component for the commercial success. More technical names such as “lab-grown meat,” for instance, are significantly less appealing to consumers than names such as “clean meat,” which is more abstract but highlights the benefits. The researchers suspect that it is crucial to ensure high acceptance to achieve both short term and long term societal benefits.
Information seems to be key – both positive and negative information about cultured meat is found to influence attitudes correspondingly. Moreover, when cultured meat is marketed as a technological innovation, it is typically perceived as less appealing than when the focus is on its societal benefits or similarity to conventional meat. Finally, general familiarity with the technology predicts acceptance, while people exhibiting food neophobia reject the innovation. As things stand, this posses a serious issue as surveys reveal that, for example, more than half of Americans are “not at all familiar” with cultured meat.
Besides technological breakthroughs, the success of cultured meat depends also on how we will handle the implications of widespread adaptation of the technology. The researchers suggest that future social analyses should include dimensions such as how powers in the food industry would shift, and the potential disruptive impact on rural economies. Furthermore, research and development efforts are currently primarily focused within the private sector, but in order for the full spectrum of cultured meat concepts and issues to be addressed, a robust scientific and academic discipline of cellular agriculture should be formed in the coming decades.
Cultured meat promises an unprecedented reduction in farmed animal suffering, hence many animal advocates’ desire to embrace it. However, a lot of effort still needs to be spent in order to educate and inform the public so that awareness of this technology‘s potential is raised and transcends scientific circles.