Lab-grown meat, a concept traditionally limited to science fiction, made the jump to reality in 2013, when Professor Mark Post’s first lab-grown burger was cooked and tasted live in London. This blog will explain the concept of lab-grown meat, also known as ‘cultured meat’, and the surrounding practical and ethical debates, with particular focus on implications for ‘food security’. For this purpose, I will be using the World Food Summit 1996 definition of food security: when ‘all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs’.
What is cultured meat?
‘Cultured meat’ is not a form of meat with refined taste and manners. The phrase refers to meat that has been grown ‘in vitro’ in a laboratory.
Producing lab-grown meat is a form of ‘cellular agriculture’. It involves taking some stem cells from an animal (cells that can transform into different cells) and feeding them a nutrient-rich serum until they develop into muscle cells and multiply. They are then attached to a scaffold to stretch and ‘exercise’ them, bulking them up into an edible product.
Why do we need it?
The current global food system is approaching global capacity. According to Sir John Beddington, we are heading towards the ‘perfect storm’ of problems that will culminate in 2030, by which time we will need around 50% more food to feed our population. A significant contributing factor to this is ‘The Meat Crisis’.
The world’s livestock sector is expanding at an unprecedented rate, driven by population growth, rising incomes and urbanisation. It is predicted that by 2030 we will be producing 376 million tonnes of meat per year, compared to 218 million in 1997-1999. The graph below illustrates this steep increase in different regions.
But why is increasing meat consumption so bad? I would split the answer into three themes:
- Medical – including nutrition-related diseases, food-borne illnesses and antimicrobial resistance
- Animal welfare and animal rights
- Environmental – including use of resources, water pollution, loss of biodiversity and climate change.
Replacing meat with cultured meat could alleviate the medical consequences of meat consumption. By altering the DNA of the initial cells, we could control the ratios of fatty acids in the end product, reducing the increased risks of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancers associated with high meat consumption. Culturing meat could also reduce food-borne diseases as these usually originate in farms, and without the uncontrolled use of antibiotics often observed in the livestock industry, antimicrobial resistance would be less of a threat. So, cultured meat could provide safer and more nutritious food: so far it sounds good for food security.
Eliminating animal welfare concerns is not so relevant to food security, but it is one of the biggest selling points of cultured meat. Cultured meat is not a ‘victimless meat’, but it is close. Production requires serum derived from the blood of unborn cows, which is somewhat inconsistent with ‘good’ animal welfare, but potential alternatives such as mushroom extracts have now been identified.
In terms of food security, the most pertinent benefits of cultured meat are to the environment. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock take up 30% of ice-free land, 8% of fresh water, and produce 18% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: more than global transport. The majority of eutrophication, a destructive form of water pollution, is also a consequence of this industry. The environment cannot cope with today’s industrial livestock farming, or, as Michael Pollen puts it:
A study comparing environmental impacts of the current livestock industry to projected impacts of cultured meat predicted that cultured meat production would require 7-45% less energy, 99% less land and 82-96% less water, while producing 78-96% less GHG emissions:
The potential for reduced land use is particularly important. Globally, we feed livestock 670 million tonnes of grain, one-third of total use. But this is not an efficient use of resources: for every 100 calories fed to animals, only 17-30 are available in meat. If meat consumption follows current trends, the amount of grain that will be fed to animals in 2050 could instead feed 3.5 billion people.
What’s wrong with it?
A study of 179 meat consumers’ opinions found that people’s initial reactions to cultured meat were generally of disgust and ‘unnaturalness’. The reaction to Post’s burger in 2013 mimics this: critics labelled it ‘Frankenburger’.
2. Health and safety
There could be unknown adverse health effects of cultured meat: no long-term studies have been conducted yet. Consumers worry particularly about potential allergies arising from genetically modified products. This anxiety is exacerbated by historical issues with new foods, such as residues and chemical contaminants.
3. Societal consequences
In addition to personal risks, there are also socio-cultural risks associated with transitioning away from meat. For example, rural and farming livelihoods could be threatened, and traditional culinary and eating traditions could be lost.
4. Risk governance and control
There is apprehension about regulation of all new technologies, but cultured meat holds particularly disturbing prospects. If culturing animal cells becomes commonplace, people will likely start culturing human cells: a form of cannibalism is expected to come into practice. For example, an ‘in-vitro cookbook’ meant to encourage thought about a future with cultured meat contains ‘Celebrity Cubes’, made using celebrity stem cells.
It cost £215,000 to fund Mark Post’s project, making him creator of the most expensive burger ever. However, with improving technology costs are plummeting: in 2016 Memphis Meats produced a ‘cultured meatball’ for the bargain price of $1000 (about £745). Now that it is scientifically possible to make cultured meat, the biggest challenge is producing it in large quantities at a reasonable price.
While technology has a way to go before it can become a realistic alternative, Mark Post predicts that cultured meat could be on the market by 2020. If it lives up to expectations of a safer and more environmentally friendly version of meat, it could be a good workaround for sections of the population that want to eat sustainably, but find the idea of giving up meat entirely unpalatable.