Agriculture 2.0: Is lab-grown meat real life or is it just delicious fantasy?

This article is part of Troubleshooting Earth: a multi-part series that explores the bold, innovative, and potentially world-changing efforts to wield technology as a weapon against climate change.

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Mosa Meat Burger

If you’re a foodie with their ear to the ground, you’ve almost certainly heard of the “farm to fork” movement, designed to promote the serving of fresh, locally sourced produce. But how about lab to table?

Sure, it’s a bit less catchy, but it’s also what many believe to be the future: the mass production of lab-grown meat which requires the killing of zero animals before it lands on your grill. It’s not just something that appeals to animal lovers, either. Lab-grown meat could, its proponents suggest, help the environment, while also producing significantly less food waste in the process.

In the past decade, the dream of lab-grown meat has shifted from science fiction to science fact. In doing so, it has sparked the creation of dozens of companies, and support from some of the biggest names on the planet. But is it truly the way of the future? Digital Trends took an extended look.

A long-term dream

You can thank Winston Churchill. Well, kind of. Back in 1931, before he was British Prime Minister, the famous wartime leader took a turn at culinary prognostication. Within 50 years, he suggested, it would be possible to “escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing.” This could be achieved by growing individual parts separately “under a suitable medium.”

Churchill was right. While lab-grown chicken is still far from mainstream, the idea has gained significant momentum in the years since then. A little over a decade ago, in 2008, PETA offered a $1 million prize to the first company that could bring lab-grown chicken meat to market. The prize money coincided with dozens of laboratories around the world taking on the challenge of cultured meat.

“When I presented the first cultured hamburger, I wasn’t aware of anyone working on cultured meat”

A few years later, in 2013, a Dutch pharmacologist and Professor of Vascular Physiology at the Netherlands’ Maastricht University, unveiled the world’s first lab-grown burger. Its game-changing “clean meat” was produced using animal cells, but without the requirement of, you know, killing an actual animal as the food source. For many people, this was the first time that they heard about lab-grown meat. Like the PETA announcement, it sparked a wave of interest from entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

“When I presented the first cultured hamburger, I wasn’t aware of anyone working on cultured meat,” Post told Digital Trends. “Now, there are over 30 companies working on commercializing this technology. The big meat companies like Tyson, Cargill and Bell Food Group have invested, as well as famous investors like Sergey Brin, Bill Gates, and Richard Branson.”

Today, Post is chief scientific officer for Mosa Meat, one of the leading startups working in lab-grown meat. There’s also the San Francisco-based Memphis Meats, Israel’s Future Meat Technologies, and many others. All have their own twists on the concept, although the broad strokes remain the same.

“[Our process involves] obtaining a small number of animal cells from high-quality livestock animals,” David Kay, senior manager of communications and operations for Memphis Meats, told us. “We figure out which of those cells naturally contain the attributes we need — superior taste, texture, and the ability to efficiently self-renew — and we take those cells and re-create essential conditions that exist inside an animal’s body, but without the animal.”

Benefits of lab-grown meat

As mentioned, there are several reasons why the world might be ready for lab-grown meat. Animal treatment and waste are two prominent explanations. “People don’t eat slaughter meat because of how it is produced; they eat it in spite of how it is produced.” That’s according to Matt Ball, a spokesperson for the Good Food Institute, a company which provides support to startups producing lab-grown food.

According to the United Nations, livestock is estimated to contribute approximately 15 percent of global gas emissions.

There is also a surprising environmental impact brought about by large scale cattle farming. Farting cows may not seem like the biggest problem we face as a planet right now, but according to the United Nations, livestock is estimated to contribute approximately 15 percent of global gas emissions. Flatulent bovines aren’t the extent of it, either. Livestock production uses a large amount of water, while the toxins used in farming can run off into natural waterways, destroying habitats and wildlife in the process.

“If we can replace the majority of livestock meat production with cultured meat production, there would likely be enormous environmental benefits,” Post continued. “One of the most devastating impacts of livestock production is that it entails mass deforestation. For example, around 70 percent of the Amazon rainforest has already been cleared for grazing. This not only causes mass loss of biodiversity, but also significantly reduces the world’s carbon sinks. It is projected that cultured meat production will use 99 percent less land, which would potentially allow for vast areas to be reforested.”

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As a scientist, Post said that he believes lab-grown meat can help address the “immeasurable harm” being done by livestock production to the environment. “I feel it is my responsibility as a scientist to try to help,” he told us. “I am very excited about the prospect of cultured meat to do good for people and our planet.”

Problems that need to be solved

Things aren’t quite as clear cut as all of this might sound, of course. There are still significant challenges which must be solved before we’re chomping down on lab-grown meat. “I would say there is no single bottleneck, but rather hundreds of problems that need to be solved,” Post explained.

On the science front, he said that there remain challenges around maximizing the proliferative capacity of the cells used, and optimizing their differentiation into muscle and fat tissue. Then there’s the issue of scaling, which requires the designing of a bioreactor-based large scale production system for mammalian cells, among other challenges. This scaling must also be done at a reasonable cost, if lab-grown meat is ever going to be a viable choice for most consumers. Producing the first lab-grown burger in 2013 cost $325,000. Two years, later this cost had dropped down to just $11.

How do you sell large numbers of people on the idea of eating protein that’s grown in a laboratory?

More prosaically, there’s the “yuck” factor, perhaps more charitably known as educating consumers. Everyone can understand the appeal of organic food, with its associated imagery of free range cows gamboling across open plains. But how do you sell large numbers of people on the idea of eating protein that’s grown in a laboratory? Given the continued PR headaches of genetically modified food, this is one heck of a tall order. And that’s provided that the product is both as tasty and affordable as its more traditional meat counterpart.

“I am confident we can solve [these problems], but it takes time,” Post said.

Does it really help the environment?

Another recent, and extremely troubling development, was a piece of research published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. Carried out by scientists from the University of Oxford, it suggested that lab-grown meat actually has the potential to be worse for the environment than cattle farming.

“There are still a lot of uncertainties around what large-scale cultured meat production could look like, and we don’t have any data from real-life production systems yet,” John Lynch, a postdoctoral researcher whose work focuses on the climate impact of livestock production, told us. “We therefore need to consider the range in potential energy requirements and physical inputs that may be required for cultured meat production before we can make a clear comparison with conventional meat.”

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Lynch continued that the way in which we currently compare the climate impacts of different activities, by looking at their “carbon dioxide equivalent emissions,” can overlook some of the important differences between different greenhouse gases. “In the more energy intensive cultured meat systems that have been speculated, we might essentially be replacing methane emissions from cattle with CO2 from energy generation,” Lynch said. “This would not necessarily be good for the climate.”

Lynch does not dismiss the potential benefits of lab-grown meat. However, research such as this makes it clear how, in many ways, we’re still at the start of this particular journey.

The way of the future

Lab-grown meat may still prove to be the future — but, for now, the emphasis needs to be kept firmly on the word “future.” Sure, we’re closer than we were in Winston Churchill’s day, but there remains a long way to go. Early estimates of when lab-grown meat products will be available to buy in your local supermarket were once measured in months. Today, even the most ardent supporters of this dream are more likely to talk in years or even decades.

At present, the most promising short-term alternative to meat are plant-based alternatives. We’re not talking about your grandfather’s Quorn vegetarian mince, either. Here in 2019, the most exciting plant-based meat substitutes are things like Impossible Food’s “bleeding” veggie burger: a burger which not only boasts the same level of bioavailable iron and high-quality protein as you’d find in conventional beef from cows, but also an impressively accurate (though still not perfect) meat-like taste and texture.

Elsewhere, the Israeli company Jet-Eat and Spanish startup Novameat are working toward 3D-printed steaks, created from vegetable-based formulations. And in Google’s cafeteria, the search giant has experimented with replacing the shrimp served to its tens of thousands of employees with a “shrimp” created using specially-engineered red algae designed to look and taste the same.

This isn’t to say that lab-growing meat isn’t on the way, though. Its proponents remain as enthusiastic as ever.

“I believe that sometime in my kid’s lifetime, plant-based and clean meat will be very close to 100 percent of the global meat market,” Matt Ball of the Good Food Institute told Digital Trends. “I don’t have an estimate as to which will have the larger share of the market — plant-based or cell-based — but they will both displace industrial animal agriculture because they are inherently more efficient, sustainable, and humane.”

So maybe enjoy that farm-grown beef steak while you still can, eh?

To check out the rest of Troubleshooting Earth, head over to the series homepage.

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