Explainer | Lab-grown meat: is it safe, is it vegetarian, when will it be available, is it better for the environment? All you need to know
- Lab-grown meat, also known as cultured meat, cultivated meat and cell-based meat, is the newest alternative protein, but what exactly is it?
- Also: how it differs from plant-based meat, what’s ‘wrong’ with it, will it be widely available soon and some of the companies leading the way
Cultured meat. Cultivated meat. Lab-grown meat. Cell-based meat. Whatever you call it, the newest addition to alternative protein is having a bit of a moment.
Over the past few months, Singapore’s government wined and dined VIP guests with cultivated meat at COP27; lab-grown chicken passed its first hurdle with the US Food and Drug Administration; and a landmark global agreement to protect biodiversity applied new pressure to rethinking how beef, pork, chicken and seafood are produced.
Advocates of cultivated meat say it could be an answer to soaring agricultural emissions, deteriorating biodiversity and alarming food insecurity, while critics worry that the high cost of cultivated meat, alongside its regulatory hurdles and unproven scalability, make it mostly hype for now.
Everyone agrees that many questions remain. For now, here’s what we know about the present and potential future of meat grown in a lab.
What is cultured meat?
Cultured or cultivated meat is made by harvesting cells from live animals, “feeding” the cells with nutrients so they can grow in a bioreactor and turning the result into a product consumers can eat.
Take fish maw, for example. The swim bladder of a fish, it’s considered a delicacy in many Asian countries. To create a lab-grown version of croaker fish maws, scientists from Hong Kong-based Avant Meats place fish cells in a culture medium containing dozens of different nutrients, and store them in a bioreactor connected to an oxygen tank.
Within weeks, those cells proliferate into tissues the size of a grain of rice, at which point they’re ready for assembly into larger pieces.
The science behind cultivated meat isn’t new – cell cultures were first used in medical research in 1907 – but applying that idea to meat gained traction after a Dutch pharmacologist presented the world’s first cell-based in-vitro hamburger on television in 2013.
Today, more than 100 companies around the world are trying to create cell-based protein, ranging from lab-grown lamb to lab-grown oysters, and even lab-grown foie gras.
Different proteins present different complications, though: makers of cell-based seafood, for example, don’t have the advantage medical research gives those cultivating mammalian cells.
And meats made up of more complex tissue and texture can be more difficult to construct – a process known as “scaffolding” that holds together muscle, fat and connective tissue to recreate meat’s structure.
How is cultivated meat different from plant-based meat?
Plant-based meat refers to “meat” that is made from soy or other non-meat ingredients – Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are two of the more high-profile companies producing plant-based meat products.
Cultivated meat, on the other hand, is produced by cultivating animal cells directly. It has the exact same nutrition as conventionally produced beef, pork, poultry and seafood – though both plant-based and cell-based meats are still perfecting the taste and texture.
The other big difference between plant-based and cultivated protein is availability. Plant-based meat is still struggling to reach consistent price parity with regular meat – and commands less than 1 per cent of the global market, according to an estimate from the Good Food Institute Asia Pacific – but it is sold in restaurants and grocery stores around the world.
For now, the commercial sale of lab-grown meat is only legal in Singapore, a city state of 5.5 million that is focused on dramatically reducing its reliance on food imports.
Experts say that’s unlikely to change any time soon. Scaling up the production of cultivated protein from a pilot stage to a commercial level requires technological advances, industry observers say, and massive bioreactors required for mass manufacturing don’t exist yet.
Regulatory hurdles also remain. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration recently told Upside Foods that it had no questions about the safety of the company’s cell-based chicken for human consumption, but the California-based start-up still needs more approvals, including from the US Department of Agriculture, which jointly oversees the roll-out of cultivated meat.
Elsewhere, policymakers in China, Israel and the Netherlands have signalled support for cell-based meat, but none have approved commercial sales.
Can vegetarians eat cultivated meat?
Technically, cultivated meat is not vegan or even vegetarian: it’s made from growing cells taken from real animals.
But people become vegetarians for different reasons, ranging from concerns over animal rights to fears about the use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock.
Many vegetarians avoid meat in an effort to keep from exhausting environmental resources. On some of these fronts, cell-based meat might be a viable alternative.
“If you believe that taking anything from an animal, including a cell, is exploitative, then you won’t be [eating cultivated meat],” says Sonalie Figueiras, founder of sustainability website Green Queen.
“But if your focus is more on reducing the overall impact of [animal] suffering, then you would probably eat it.”
Is cultivated protein better for the environment?
Cell-based meat can play a vital role in helping restore biodiversity, which has long been threatened by traditional agriculture. Consider, for example, that clearing land for cattle ranching is responsible for about 80 per cent of deforestation in the Amazon.
But when it comes to the climate impact of cultivated protein, the answer isn’t entirely straightforward.
Growing meat from cells in bioreactors does use far less land than traditional farming, and avoids a lot of the emissions associated with, for example, cow burps. It could also allow companies to produce meat closer to their consumers, reducing the amount of fuel needed to deliver foodstuffs.
But growing meat in bioreactors demands significant amounts of electricity, particularly at scale. That makes cultivated pork and chicken a viable option to reduce emissions only if its production is powered by wind, solar and other renewable energy sources, according to one 2021 study by Dutch environmental consultancy CE Delft.
The same study found that cell-based beef, on the other hand, can achieve more climate gains than its farmed counterpart no matter what kind of power is used to make it, because conventional cattle ranching is so resource-intensive.
What’s ‘wrong’ with cultivated protein?
Most doubts about cultivated protein have to do with its limitations: for now, it’s still highly expensive to produce, which makes widespread sales – even with regulatory approval – difficult to imagine any time soon.
Indeed, nearly a decade after the world’s first cultivated in-vitro burger was created at a phenomenal cost of US$325,000, the only commercially available cultivated meat is sold in small amounts in Singapore and made by San Francisco-based Eat Just.
The company says it will take eight years for its products to become cost-competitive with conventional meat.
Transparency has also been a point of contention. Jaydee Hanson, a policy director at the Washington-based non-profit Centre for Food Safety, says makers of cultivated protein rarely disclose how they keep the cells growing.
That can sometimes expose problematic processes and raise new questions about ethicality, like for example the use of the blood of unborn calves as a medium for cell culture. (Some cultivated protein companies, however, are making efforts to ditch all production materials of animal origin.)
Then there’s the more everyday but equally important challenges: appearance, texture and taste.
On a November night at the Four Seasons in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, a dozen COP27 attendees dined on grilled chicken thigh with mushroom rice, a dish made using Eat Just’s cell-based chicken. The entrée was met with mixed results.
“It’s got the look [of chicken],” one guest said.
“I can definitely tell it’s not chicken,” noted another. “It’s too smooth.”