An Introduction to Cultured Meat
One of the most interesting recent developments in technology and science in my eyes is cultured meat, also known as clean meat. In short, cultured meat products are edible meat products that have been grown in labs. Despite it still being in development, many believe that this promising technology holds many solutions to problems we face today. I first heard about it a few years ago and I made it a habit to check in every couple of months or so, to see how it was developing. Recently, I came upon a petition filed by the US Cattlemen’s Association to the US Department of Agriculture that argues that lab-grown meat should not be labeled as meat. This petition requests that there would be a clear distinction between the two types of products - natural meat and lab-grown meat, so as to not create confusion on the consumer’s side. While I agree with some of the claims and reasoning presented in the petition, I felt that there was more hidden in the petition than an attempt to clear confusion. In it, an explicit contrast was being made repeatedly - a line was drawn between the traditional, old, natural meat and the new, unconventional cultured meat. It felt as if the USCA was looking into the future and seeing the cultured meat industry as a viable competitor that they have to get ready to face. To someone who was watching from the sidelines, it was the first time that I noticed traditional meat growers taking steps to get ready for some competition from this direction. This alone made the whole idea of in vitro meat seem all the more realistic and practical, so I decided to give it a closer look.
Let’s start from the beginning. Simply put, cultured meat is meat grown in a lab, to be sold as a food product. The goal is to have meat that is exactly as we know today, except the fact that it comes from a different source. This would allow us to keep our eating habits the way they are now, but in a cleaner, more sustainable way. The idea is to grow only the parts we need and use, without having to spend energy and resources on growing all the parts we don’t need and also avoiding all of the byproducts that can harm the environment (mainly greenhouse gases and pollutants). While the technology is recent, the idea certainly is not. In 1932, an article by Winston Churchill was published named ‘50 Years Hence’. In the article, he speculated on how the future would turn out to be. Mr. Churchill has predicted: ‘we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium...The new foods will be practically indistinguishable from the natural products from the outset’. Well, this prediction may very well become realized, as research in this field has been done since the early 2000’s, and the goal seems more attainable with every day that passes.
The process of culturing meat is relatively simple - take a few cells from an animal, provide them with the right conditions, and they will do what cells do - multiply. The process is done in a machine called a bioreactor, which creates the optimal growing conditions for cell growth (temperature, pH, oxygen levels). A growing medium that contains all the nutrients, vitamins and materials that are needed by the cells is added to the bioreactor. Then, a few cells from an animal are added. These will act as a starting population. Once you introduce all the ingredients to the bioreactor, the cells will multiply and the culture will grow. The fact that only a few cells from an animal are needed, instead of the whole organism, is one of the selling points. Jessica Krieger, a researcher for New Harvest, has said that from the animal’s point of view, this process is ‘more like a trip to the doctor or vet, instead of a trip to the slaughterhouse’.
In addition to sparing many animals in the process, there are countless advantages in culturing meat. The main advantages, in my eyes, are in the environmental field. It’s very hard to predict and quantify the effects of culturing meat, and estimates vary, but they all point to a cleaner future. By growing only the meat, and not the whole animal, the amount of energy you have to utilize drops down dramatically - calories that are usually needed for growing parts of the body that we do not consume and use will not be needed. In regards to this, Krieger has said that this process includes ‘only growing the meat, which is less mass to support in comparison to growing the whole cow over its entire life cycle’. The less energy that is needed, the amount of raw materials to provide the nutrients for the culturing process is decreased. That means that cultured meat will allow us to grow the same amount of food while utilizing less land to grow it. These days meat consumption is on the rise and so it serves as a main driver of deforestation and habitat degradation - by using less land, we can slow and maybe even reverse these processes. Growing meat in a lab is predicted to cut down greenhouse gas emissions by up to 15%. That would be a big step towards dealing with global warming. Estimates also show that by culturing meat our water footprint would be softened, as well. These numbers are the hardest to evaluate, as the water that is used to farm animals is different than the water that is required to culture meat.
The upsides do not end here, though. Cultured meat is grown in a sterile environment. Thus, diseases that affect farm animals and enter the market through meat will no longer be a problem. Biomaterials that are produced by bacteria and cause food-poisonings will not find their way into our food. Not only will the meat be safer to eat, but we may design it to even be healthier. By culturing meat, we will be able to control its composition and determine the amounts of saturated and polyunsaturated fats in the meat, for example. We will be able to enrich the meat with healthy components, such as omega-3 fatty acid. The shelf life of sterile cultured meat will be much longer than natural meat’s. Much of the food that we grow today ends up unused due to spoilage or simply spoiled because it is not being used. A longer shelf life will lead to conserving great amounts of food, which is unimaginably important.
The process of developing the technology is well on its way, and some success has been achieved. Ground beef is made of skeletal muscle tissue, which is relatively easy to culture and samples of it have been cultured to the point where people can actually consume it - we have the technology. Despite that, we are still some way away from being able to just buy it in the supermarket. One of the main obstacles is upscaling the production of cultured meat. Today, we can do it on a small scale - in a lab, a few samples at a time. In order for it to be marketable, we need to sort out a way to mass-produce it. That is not an impossible task, and estimates point at 2021 as a feasible point for production to start on an industrial scale. But that applies to just the easier types of tissues. The harder ones, tissue-structured cuts, like steak, will take longer. These types of cuts require much more specific makeup and arrangement, which is still a challenge today.
While technical kinks are being worked out, there’s another significant obstacle in the way - public perception. Many people view cultured meat as an unnatural and unfamiliar alternative to natural meat. It seems only reasonable that a brand new source of food should be, at the very least, suspect. I admit that while I am supportive of this alternative and can’t wait to try it out, I reserve my doubts until I do. Research on this topic has shown that while many people initially reject the idea of cultured meat, once they have had the chance to evaluate the upsides of it they tend to reconsider. Many believe that once cultured meat has been available for a few years and people will get used to the idea, those who have been on the fence about it will find it easier to try. Maybe one day far in the future, we, as a society, will look back at the ‘old’ ways of growing meat and see them as immoral and wrong.
Obviously, the most important aspect of cultured meat to many people will be its taste. It has to be as close as possible to natural meat, if not perfectly identical. That has been a focal point in the development of cultured meat. Through its development, many variations and compositions have been tested, to mimic the flavor and texture of natural meat. The ratio of muscle tissue and fatty tissue has been a major factor in controlling the flavor, and running electricity through a growing tissue has the effect that exercise has on natural meat, which makes the texture of cultured meat resemble that of natural meat. To test the quality of their products, ‘meat culturers’ have invited chefs and food critiques to taste their products. These tasting sessions have included the lab-grown versions of beef, duck, fish, foie gras and chorizo, and all of the samples have received top marks. In fact, people who have tasted these samples have said that they can’t even tell the difference. Take these words with a grain of salt, though - many of those who already got to taste the cultured meat samples are active supporters of cultured meat, and may be somewhat biased.
The petition that asks for proper labeling of artificial meat makes a point that consumers might end up buying the wrong type of product, due to mislabeling. That is definitely a valid concern, but I don’t think that will be a problem, though. The products that will contain cultured meat will represent a cleaner and more sustainable method of food production and they will be marketed as such. Manufacturers and distributors of these products would want to distinguish themselves from natural meat products as much as the other way around. They would want to make sure that the consumers know that they bought a ‘greener’ item. This would also lend a hand to raising awareness to the problems that clean meat is trying to help alleviate. In addition to that, until clean meat has become a normal part of our life, it is likely to be more expensive than natural meat, and a proper label will explain the difference in price.
When I think about it, I can plainly see how weird the concept of cultured meat is, and why not everyone might take to it at once. Meat consumption is a loaded subject already, so adding another layer of questions can’t help. We have synthesized food products in a lab before, but this will undoubtedly attract more attention and scrutiny. Even if the final product will be exactly similar to natural meat in every way, just knowing that it came from an unconventional origin is enough to give it a weird feeling. On the other hand, this technique seems to be within our reach, and many really believe that it might at the very least help minimize quite a few problems. there are many unforeseen obstacles yet to encounter and this technology alone will not reverse all of our environmental woes, but it might be a big step in the right direction.