Lab Grown Meat Could Save The World
It could be the solution to everything from world hunger to global warming.
What you’re looking at could be the solution to everything from world hunger to global warming.
This isn’t real chicken. Well, actually, it is—but it didn’t come from an animal. It was grown in a lab.
There’s only one country in the world that allows this type of meat to be sold commercially today, but if everything goes right, we might start seeing this everywhere, including in your local grocery stores and restaurants.
Here’s what you need to know about lab grown meat.
The first thing to understand is that this isn’t plant-based meat we’re talking about. You might have seen or eaten meat alternatives sold under brand names like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.
Those are plant-based food products that designed to smell, taste and cook like animal meat, but they aren’t actually meat.
Lab-grown meat is meat at a cellular level. It doesn’t just look and taste like meat; it’s made up of actual animal muscle tissue.
The way this meat is made is pretty interesting; they use some cutting-edge science and technology to grow it.
The process can essentially be boiled down to a few steps.
The first is getting a sample of cells from a living animal (a biopsy). While there’s many different types of cells that can be used in the process, most of companies in the space use stem cells because they can easily change into other types of cells, like the muscle cells that primarily make up meat.
In order to avoid having to keep collecting cell samples over and over again, what usually happens is the cells are immortalized. This can either happen through genetic modification or it can happen naturally.
An immortalized cell can keep dividing and replicating forever, which is obviously helpful when you want a lot of them.
The next step is to take those cells and give them nourishment. Just like when they’re in real animals, cells in a lab need nutrients. So they’re combined with a medium that contains things like vitamins, sugars and amino acids.
With the help of those nutrients, the cells begin to replicate. They’re then placed in a bioreactor—which is a big vessel that looks like the fermentation tanks that are used to make beer. The bioreactor provides a highly controlled environment for the cells to grow and multiply.
Over the course of a few weeks, the cells within the bioreactor become muscle tissue.
And then that muscle tissue is harvested and processed further to create specific meat products—like meatballs, nuggets, ground meat—or even more complex meat structures like steak.
This entire process can be done in two to eight weeks, which is a fraction of the time it takes to raise and slaughter most animals for meat.
And not only is it a faster process, it’s one that could potentially provide a lot of other benefits as well. From a health perspective, because lab-grown meat is created in a controlled environment, it can be produced without the use of antibiotics or hormones.
There’s also likely to be less instances of foodborne illnesses associated with lab-grown mean due to the sterile environment that it’s created in.
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But it’s not just about the health benefits. Consider all the downsides of the meat industry today.
It results in the slaughter of 80 billion animals per year, many of which live traumatic lives in inhumane conditions.
Livestock also produce 15% of the global greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for climate change (most of which comes from cattle which release a significant amount of methane by burping).
At the same time, feeding the livestock that are eventually turned into the meat that we eat requires an enormous amount of land, which in some countries leads to a massive amount of deforestation (cattle ranching accounts for 80% of the deforestation in Amazon countries).
Meanwhile, in other countries, they don’t even have enough land to produce all the meat that they want.
Take the tiny island nation of Singapore. It imports 90% of its food.
It’s for that reason that the country is at the forefront of bringing lab-grown meat into the mainstream.
In 2020, it gave the greenlight to a San Francisco-based company named Eat Just to begin selling lab grown chicken in the country, making Singapore the first country to allow the commercial sale of lab grown meat.
With the help of lab grown meat and other meat alternatives, Singapore has a goal of bringing the percentage of food it imports down from 90% to 70%.
Given that only 1% of Singapore’s is land available for food production, this would be a huge accomplishment for the country.
Today, Singapore is still the only country that is allowing lab-grown meat to be sold commercially.
But other countries could soon follow suit. A few months ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that lab-grown chicken from Berkeley, California-based Upside Foods is safe to eat.
The company will need additional approvals from the United States Department of Agriculture before it can ultimately sell its chicken to consumers, but if all goes to plan, it could be available for sale in the not-too-distant future.
In 2021, the company opened a $50 million plant that can produce 50,000 pounds of meat per year, with the potential to increase that to nearly half a million pounds per year eventually.
Its plans include growing not only chicken—which is the most popular meat in the world—but also beef, duck and more.
None of this is going to be easy, though, and some people are skeptical that lab grown meat can be commercially viable at scale.
A report from the food-focused research organization called The Counter suggests that the cost of lab-grown meat will always be much too high to compete with traditional meat.
The argument from the skeptics essentially boils down to this idea of cell density. Even when grown in a lab, cells excrete waste. This waste is toxic and can slow cell growth, dramatically increasing the cost of production.
The more cells you have, the more waste you have as well, which can be a big problem.
Another issue that people talk about is the high cost of the nutrients that feed the cells. Getting the cost of lab grown meat down is going to require bringing those costs down.
So the economic viability of lab-grown meat is very much up in the air, but that’s not the only headwind the industry is facing. Another big one is whether consumers will even accept this type of food.
Today, the plant-based meat industry—which includes the companies Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods I mentioned earlier—makes up less than 1% of the sales of the broader meat industry.
Of course, lab grown meat, is a different thing. It has an advantage in that it actually is meat.
But that still doesn’t mean it’ll be accepted.
After all, it’s literally meat grown in a lab. That doesn’t sound very appetizing.
For that reason, the industry is trying to get people to call their product something more appealing, like cultivated meat, cultured meat, or even clean meat.
Some companies have even partnered with top chefs to help introduce their meat to diners and reduce the stigma that might be associated with it.
So, we’ll see what happens.
The lab grown meat industry does have promise. There’s currently over 100 companies involved in this space and they’ve raised several billion dollars from investors, including Bill Gates and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Those companies and those investors obviously see potential in this space, but of course, it still might not pan out.
Personally, I wouldn’t eat this meat until there’s more evidence that it truly is safe, but others might jump in and try it as soon as it’s available.
I do see the promise and potential of this industry though. It’s not hard to imagine that the people living in the future, whether it’s 20, 30 or 40 years from now, will look back on our meat industry today and find it primitive and even barbaric.
But who knows? We still aren’t sure whether this industry can sustain itself without external funding.
Realistically, I think what we can expect over the next few years is the slow roll out of this type of meat into grocery stores and into restaurants, kind of like what we’ve seen with plant-based meat.
And then we’ll see whether consumers approve of it and whether the manufacturing of this type of meat can scale up into the much larger quantities that would be needed to replace traditional sources of meat.
Only then you can talk about lab grown meat being a solution to those really big issues like climate change, deforestation, animal suffering, global hunger, etc.
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