What’s Slowing Down Clean Meat?
Despite several companies and research teams working on bringing clean meat to the market at this very moment, only a few publications exist that focus on the advances in this field. One reason could be corporate secrecy. After all, if clean meat could displace at least some conventional rearing of farmed animals and slaughter, it would create multibillion-dollar revenues.
Having progressed from ‘in vitro’ to ‘cultured meat’ and, more recently, ‘clean meat,’ even the product’s name is still everchanging, which illustrates the novelty of this technology. Critics and opponents to clean meat, by the way, often label it ‘cultured muscle protein,’ ‘lab meat,’ ‘synthetic meat,’ or even the very derogatory ‘Frankenstein meat.’ The debate over what we should call it reflects both the ambiguity over what it actually is and the political sensitivities connected to the product.
The review at hand is by a mixed group of researchers and professionals from the U.K., and it focuses on the technical, sociopolitical, and regulatory opportunities and challenges professionals face in bringing clean meat to market. The researchers based this work on published literature, their own professional experience (including ongoing laboratory work in producing clean meat), and over 70 interviews with experts in the area.
Advantages Of Clean Meat
According to several initial life cycle assessments, the potential of clean meat is immense—researchers and professionals claim it can significantly reduce water use, greenhouse gas emissions, eutrophication potential, and land use compared to conventional farmed animal systems. But, it is vital to understand that these are all mere estimates so far.
Other studies have reported that clean meat may have high energy requirements, while still being superior in reduced land use and lower levels of terrestrial and freshwater ecotoxicity. Overall, the authors found that clean meat seemingly could have less environmental impact than beef and possibly pork, but more of an impact than chicken and plant-based alternatives. On the other hand, we must keep in mind that this technology is still in its infancy—there is a strong belief that it has significant scope for innovation and advancements in the future.
Difficulties In Growing Meat Artificially
The challenges of producing clean meat arise from the need to replicate the muscle growing environment—that millions of years of evolution has formed—in each cow or other animal and make use of it in an industrial laboratory.
The authors identify five main limitations regarding clean meat technology:
- Cell growth media: Currently, the most efficient media use animal products. This renders the process not only expensive and so prohibitive on a large scale, but also counterproductive in terms of improving animal welfare.
- Cell scaffolds: Similarly, so far, the scaffolds (cell-supporting structures required to make products with clearly defined 3D structures—think steak vs mince) most suited for animal tissue growth come from animals or use animal products.
- Scale: Growing muscle cells on a commercial scale is unattainable at the moment due to issues in efficient waste-product removal and cell differentiation.
- Acceptance: Academic ethics literature generally supports clean meat—some researchers even argue that developing cultured meat “might be our moral obligation.” But, social media studies find that the public often perceive clean meat to be unnatural, and this perception could pose some resistance. Public surveys support this by unanimously showing a diversity of responses ranging from positive to negative. In fact, the authors report that public concerns even include the potential for clean meat to provide a new frontier for multinational corporations to accumulate further capital and power.
- Regulation: No standard and globally united regulatory structure exists that could include clean meat at the moment. Different production methods imply different regulatory pathways, and the current uncertainties and difficulties mean identifying a clear pathway remains a task for professionals to solve.
The authors find that it should be possible to produce small-scale clean meat products of edible quality in the near future. But, the most ambitious targets of producing clean meat on a scale that could significantly affect our plight against global climate change is likely to take many decades—if it is at all possible.
All of the media excitement around the topic might in fact be premature—more scientific assessments are necessary to critically evaluate the true impacts of this technology. It is vital to be more certain of clean meat’s future environmental, social, and ethical consequences before professionals unleash it. The authors urge continued critical analysis of these consequences to better understand who and what clean meat will affect and how.
Despite clean meat’s thrilling potential, we—as animal advocates—should still be cautious of promoting cultured meat as a kind of Holy Grail. It is still at an early technological stage with some hurdles to overcome before cruelty-free muscle protein can ever turn up in our grocery aisles.