Vegetarians have long been familiar with meat substitutes — “meat” patties made from soy or “crispy chicken” that is actually plant protein. But if you’re a carnivore, a steak is a steak, and it comes from a cow. Or does it?
These days, advancements in technology aren’t limited to just your smartphone or appliances. Food technology is a growing business and lab-grown meat could be headed to your plate soon. Let’s dig in.
Similarly to the advances made in other areas of our lives, food is undergoing its own revolution. This isn’t a new idea: Louis Pasteur, famous for developing pasteurization in order to keep milk from spoiling and bacteria from growing back in the 1800s, was part of an earlier food revolution.
Today, that movement looks a bit different. Now we have vertical farming, Heal the Planet farms (by our very own Jordan Rubin!), hydroponics, regenerative agriculture, finding ways to keep more nutrients in foods and even refrigerators that alert us to when food might be going bad.
Meanwhile, lab-grown meat is one of the innovations that might change the way we eat in the future.
First things first: What is lab-grown meat, also known as clean meat or in-vitro meat? Traditionally, getting meat means breeding the animal, sending it to slaughter and then packaging up the meat to sell.
How is lab-grown meat made? Instead of using live animals, stem cells from an animal’s muscle tissue — known as a donor animal — are combined with a serum, which usually is derived from the fetuses of dead cows. The cells are fed sugar and salts, tricking them into thinking they’re still in an animal.
Over time, the muscle stem cells begin transforming, as they strengthen, expand and mature into muscle fibers. Eventually, when enough of these fibers combine, you have a piece of meat. Fat tissue may then be added to give the meat a flavor more consistent with traditional meat and then it’s hello, dinner.
Because lab-grown meat still requires animal products, it’s not considered vegan. So is this food tech worth it?
One of the biggest benefits that people who work in food technology see about the prospects of lab-grown meat is that it’s better for the environment. There’d be less need to raise cows, which could potentially cut back on greenhouse emissions. Less land and water usage would likely follow as well, since fewer cows would need to be raised and they’d require less food.
As the world’s population continues growing, farming enough animals to feed meat eaters will take its toll on the planet. Even today, only about 3.2 percent of Americans are vegetarian. (1) Lab-grown meat, advocates say, provides a solution, by allowing more meat to be produced without depleting as many resources.
However, because lab-grown meat is in its infancy, it’s too early to say if that would definitely happen. Energy usage to produce the meat would likely skyrocket, as you’d have massive facilities that would require electricity 24/7. A large-scale study, where the entire life cycle of producing meat traditionally versus in a lab, would need to be done to measure the true effects.
Currently, lab-grown meat costs are also too expensive to hit the market just yet. A lot of that is due to the serum that’s necessary for the stem cells to grow. It should be noted, too, that an animal still needs to die in order to gain those stem cells. Synthetic, plant-based alternatives exist, but animal serum is more attractive because nearly any cell can be grown with it.
Infamously, the first lab-grown burger, created in 2013, cost nearly $400,000 to produce. Until food technology advances and a better plant-based alternative is created, lab-grown meat for sale isn’t likely to happen anytime soon — and that means lab-grown meat prices will be out of reach for the average consumer.
Another question that’s up in the air when it comes to lab-grown meat is what it should be called and who should be regulating it. Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates meat and its production, while the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, is in charge of food safety, dairy, produce and packaged foods, including imitation meat products. If lab-grown meat isn’t considered meat, technically it would fall under the FDA’s jurisdiction.
But lab-grown meat advocates argue that their products are still meat, it’s just the processes used to create it that differ from traditional production. Still others think that regulation should be a joint effort between the two federal agencies.
Even the cattle industry is split — some think lab-grown meat shouldn’t be allowed to be called meat, hopefully giving their products an edge among consumers at the grocery store. But cattle lobbying groups are hoping that lab-grown meat is called meat, because the USDA has a history of protecting the agricultural industry. For the average consumer, what entity regulates the meat isn’t as important as making sure that it is safely regulated and that it doesn’t pose health issues.
And speaking of labeling, it’s likely that to be a cause for concern among shoppers as well. While the market for meat substitutes is expected to reach more than $5 billion by 2020, that doesn’t mean that people necessarily want to buy meat without knowing that it was produced in a lab — just think of how we feel about products that contain GMOs. (2)
Just because lab-grown meat is available doesn’t mean people will necessarily purchase it, either. Though one study found that 40 percent of Americans and 60 percent of vegans would be willing to try clean meat, it will be interesting to see what happens when if it’s actually available in stores. (2) It might take off in, say, the U.S. and Europe, but it’s likely that clean meat will cause a radical change in the developing world, where livestock is used for more than just food and where the most demand for meat in the next few decades is likely to come from.
Food technology is revolutionizing the way we eat and lab-grown meat is on the horizon.
Lab-grown meat uses animal stem cells to grow meat in a lab.
Clean meat enthusiasts say producing meat in this way will help reduce the amount of land, water and food necessary to feed cattle. Currently, however, the ingredients required for lab-grown meat still kill the animal.
Lab-grown meat is still too expensive to be mass produced, but it’s likely that will change in the next 5 years or so as viable alternatives to animal-based serums become available.
There’s confusion about whether lab-grown meat will be labeled as such and who will be in charge of regulating it.
Ultimately, it’s likely that lab-grown meat will have more of an impact in places like the U.S. and Europe and not necessarily developing countries, where the need is probably greater for meat alternatives.
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