Cultured Meat: Big Promises & Future Potential
In December of last year, cultured meat became commercially available for the first time in the form of Eat Just’s chicken nuggets. This was an important step for an industry that hopes to shape the future of our global food systems. It has been projected that by 2040, 35% of the global meat supply will be cultured meat. Such a shift would have a drastic impact on both animals and the environment at large. The majority of companies in the field are founded on the objectives of improving animal welfare and reducing environmental destruction, areas where the livestock industry fails by its very nature. And so, cell-cultured meat seems both within reach and welcome. However, opponents of the industry question its ethical and environmental credentials, and there are clearly many questions to be answered before we can confidently predict its impact, let alone realize it.
The recent history of cell-cultured meat involves advancement, excitement, and substantial financial investment. Prior to last year, the industry’s defining moment was in 2013, when Professor Mark Post, Chief Scientific Officer at Mosa Meats, cooked and ate the first lab-grown burger in London. This project was financially backed to the tune of $330,000USD by Google’s co-founder, Sergey Brin. Since then, around 30 cell-cultured meat companies have attracted over $73.3 million worth of financial investment. Companies have continued to show off products and offer tastings such as Memphis Meat’s meatball or carp croquettes from Finless Foods. Both the products and the ideological reason behind them have generated largely positive coverage and the amount of coverage is only increasing.
Cell cultured meat is created by taking a small sample of cells and growing them in a nutrient-rich environment. These cells can come from a biopsy of a living animal, a cell bank, or even a feather (such is the case for Eat Just’s nuggets). After bringing these cells to a sufficient density in the lab, they are put into a bioreactor, where they can further grow and divide at scale. In the bioreactor, the cells are provided with nutrients, such as sugars and amino acids, to help them grow. The cells also receive signaling molecules called growth factors that tell them how to behave. These growth factors eventually encourage the cells to differentiate into the muscle or fat cells that make up the final meaty product.
The process is claimed to provide numerous benefits compared to traditional farming practices, including reduced animal suffering, land use, water and energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, waste production, and increasing global access to protein. At first glance, the prospects are exciting for animal advocates & environmentalists alike. However, as a sense of excitement and possibility is purposefully cultivated by many start-up companies hoping to attract investors, it’s important to critically assess the reality of these claims.
Reducing animal suffering is stated as the primary objective by many in the cultured meat field. Over 70 billion land animals are killed for food every year, after suffering extensive abuse throughout their lives. If conventional meat can be replaced by cultured meat and so decrease the number of animals involved, an overall reduction in animal suffering may be possible. But this is far from guaranteed. With global meat consumption rising yearly, it is feasible that cultured meat may have an additive effect, rather than replacing any traditional meat. Subsequently, a reduction in suffering would not be realized. Whilst it has been predicted that the conventional meat supply may drop by more than 33% by 2040, there are plenty who are skeptical. Whether cultured meat can eventually contribute to a significant reduction in suffering will depend on many technological, social, economic, and political factors.
Other proposed benefits of cultured meat are environmental, and it is generally presented as a green option compared with conventional farming. One older study used a hypothetical model of what form cultured meat production might take. It predicted approximately 99% less land use and 69-82% less water use than conventionally produced meat from cows, sheep, pigs and chickens. It also predicted 7–45% less energy use than conventional meat (only poultry has lower energy use) & 78–96% less greenhouse gas emissions. However, a more recent study that incorporated a different production process, found that due to substantial energy use, cultured meat may in fact have greater global warming potential than pork or poultry. Also supporting this stance is an assessment which found cultured meat to have uncertain GHG outcomes, and significant water usage. The lack of clarity around the environmental impact has led the U.K. campaign group Friends of the Earth (FoE) to state that any claims made by cultured meat companies will need “proper assessment.” So it seems a consensus on cultured meat’s green credentials is far from being reached, and will no doubt be a point of contention as the field expands.
Underlying the debate around the potential benefits of cultured meat are a host of challenges that need to be met if those benefits stand a chance of becoming reality. Many of these challenges fall into the category of scalability, as companies try and produce large enough quantities to significantly impact the market and affect real change. Most notably is that of the cell culture media that is used to grow the cells. This media is very costly to produce and, to many animal advocate’s displeasure, will often contain foetal bovine serum (FBS), taken from the blood of cow foetuses. FBS is currently the most effective way to provide the necessary growth factors, but is a clear issue for those looking for an animal-free product. Work on alternative solutions to FBS are ongoing, with some promising results to date.
The development of fit-for-purpose “scaffolding” also poses a challenge. Scaffolds are 3D support structures that cells in a bioreactor will attach to and use to develop into complex structures themselves. Whilst products such as ground beef may not need to rely on scaffolding, more sophisticated products such as steaks certainly will. Scaffolds must be edible or biodegradable, they must support tissue maturation and they must allow nutrients access to all the cells that are using the scaffold for support. Traditionally, successful scaffolds have used animal-derived factors that have been designed by nature for this exact job. Further exploration into animal-free scaffold technology is ongoing, including the use of plant- or fungal-derived scaffolds. Like the cell culture media, this technology will need to be cost-effective if an economically viable product is to be eventually produced.
Challenges such as those above are soon to be tackled at Mosa Meat’s new pilot production plant which is currently undergoing development. The plant is being built to demonstrate industrial scalability and the company hopes to produce its first products for market in 2022. It is expected to produce 200 tons of cultured meat a year as a “proof of concept”. This is a big step for the industry, but when considering that humans consume over 350 million tons of meat a year, it’s clear there will be plenty more scaling to do.
Aside from the internal scientific challenges, there are also external challenges to be addressed. Consumer acceptance will be critical to the success of cultured meat and a recent literature review summary by Faunalytics explores the current landscape. Additionally, farming industry groups are likely to be vocal opponents of the industry, which poses an existential threat to their members. For example, a recent attack ad campaign from European Livestock Voice depicts a natural-looking barn alongside a soulless, industrialized meat lab, in an attempt to scare off potential consumers.
Attacking from the other side are activists and scholars who put forward many convincing ethically grounded critiques of cultured meat. The website Clean Meat Hoax brings a number of these prominent voices together. Among other critiques, the site highlights the disturbing trend of “Big Meat” buying up many vegan manufacturers in the last few years, a trend that has already leached into the cultured meat industry with the world-renowned deforester and food giant Cargill’s investment into Memphis Meat. Consequently, they claim that when purchasing these products, the consumer is contributing to the profit margins of “rapacious, ecocidal corporations.” Moreover, they highlight that the more of the vegan and alternative flesh product markets Big Meat captures, “the more it is likely to de-highlight violence against animals as a public concern.” Other voices have argued that cultured meat will continue the existing and harmful fetishization of meat and have also predicted the creation of a non-meat-eating elite, who operate guilt-free because of their increased purchasing power.
It is clear the cultured meat industry has the potential to significantly affect the future of both animal and environmental welfare. Large investments and positive media coverage have resulted in a field full of optimism and opportunity, however current accounts of its potential impact may be overly simplistic and there are plenty of challenges to be met. A critical analysis of future data will be needed to determine whether the industry is one that animal advocates can feel comfortable supporting.
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