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Additional Notes - Cultured Meat

Original Article - An Introduction to Cultured Meat.

It seems to me that cultured meat doesn’t come up in conversations exceptionally often, but consistently. It comes up every time there’s a new bit of news circulating about it. After I read the petition filed by the USCA, I could not wait to dive into it and see what information I can find. I read all kinds of papers and articles about the subject and my article just touches the tip of it.

After spending the time I did reading up on this, I now see cultured meat everywhere. YouTube, Reddit and other news sources are filled with information about cultured meat. I’m wondering if it is just a mild case of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon or if cultured meat really gets more attention now. I think the latter makes more sense as my interest in cultured meat is not new. Also, the frequency of Kumquat or Igloo items in my news feed has not changed.

Since I first read the petition, there had not been many updates. Comments were made on both sides of the meat industry. According to this article (from agri-pulse.com), organizations on the natural meat side are looking at the battle the dairy industry is having with alternative options and trying to prevent that. And according to this article (from foodnavigator-usa.com), people on the cultured meat side are not expecting much change - the petition aims to clear confusion for the consumers, but cultured meat will not be intentionally mislabeled, just the opposite. The petition aims to make sure that the word ‘meat’ will not be used to describe alternatives, just like soy milk still has the word ‘milk’ in its name. I just don’t think that the specific word that will be used will have such an impact. Of course, it may affect and hinder the process of public acceptance of lab-grown meat, but if it proves to be a viable alternative, it will catch on nonetheless. People are waiting for that option and are willing to pay for it, even if it is more expensive. Even if they can’t use the word ‘meat’ to label it, some other word will catch on and stick. These things seem to happen very fast these days.

I am sure that there are more than a few arguments out there against lab-grown meat. The one that I have come across the most claims that cultured meat is only a quick fix and that it is a lazy solution. There are two points to this argument. The first point represents the animal rights point of view, which claims that as long as animals are involved in the process, even as a source of cells, then cultured meat does not solve animal cruelty. The second point represents the environmental point of view, and it claims that while cultured meat is cleaner than natural meat, it still is not as clean and efficient as eating only plant-based foods. While both points make sense, I feel that they are looking for an absolute, and thus impractical solution - completely stop meat production and consumption. This absolute solution is surely cruelty-free and cleaner than any other alternative. I believe that we can get all our nutrients and proteins from plant-based foods, so that won’t be a problem. But I don’t see a path that leads to not consuming meat at all. Not when it still matters, anyway. Even if we had the time and resources required to converting our food production from animal-based to plant-based, not everyone would be on board with the plan to do so. Awareness to the environmental or moral problems of meat-production is not all-reaching and many people are not interested in it. No matter how you look at it, there is no way that the world can go from current meat-production to zero meat-production just like that - it takes a certain steps.

These steps may include cultured meat, which stands for a less-absolute and thus a more attainable solution. Meat consumption has been a controversial topic for a while now, with vegetarians on one side, and ‘carnivores’ on the other. Cultured meat represents a middle-ground between the two opposing camps. Growing meat in a lab is much more realistic than ending meat production completely, and it offers a way to minimize environmental and moral problems. That in itself seems enough to make it a worthy compromise. Once cultured meat has become a regular part of our life, and natural meat production may decline, awareness of the vegetarian and environmental point of views will increase and we can take it from there.

The closest example, I think, is the cars industry. Cars cause many problems, mainly in the form of pollution and risk to people. If we stopped using cars altogether we would solve both these problems. But we rely too much on cars. We can’t just shut off all the cars and walk everywhere - Too many things depend on all types of cars. A middle-ground is needed - the electric, automatic car. It is a cleaner and safer alternative. It is hard to say exactly how much cleaner and safer it would be, but all estimates point to it being a good replacement. It is not an absolutely perfect solution, but it is a very worthy compromise.

It’s important to mention that lab-grown meat has quite a few supporters that you may recognize. Bill Gates and Richard Branson, among others, have invested money in support of clean meat. Considering that funding is a big obstacles for clean meat, this financial support is crucial. It might be more surprising at first, but it makes sense to hear that even PETA supports lab-grown meat. They see that it might be better to switch to clean meat than keep consuming natural meat. And finally, Tyson and Cargill, two of USA’s largest meat producers have invested in meat alternatives. Their support might be a good sign for the future of clean meat. More information in this article (from Fortune.com).

There is another developing research field that is somewhat related to cultured meat - artificial organs. Many people have raised the question - if we are able to culture muscle tissue, why not lungs, liver or a heart? While there are similarities between the fields, they face different obstacles. In order to develop methods to culture meat, we have to find ways to produce meat that is tasty and safe to eat, while affordable to produce on a mass scale. Artificial organs will not be produced on such a scale - I have heard that it is recommended to consume 2-4 servings of meat per week and I hope most people won’t need replacement organs throughout their lives. One of the main factors for the success of artificial organs is compatibility with our bodies, which is not a factor whatsoever for cultured meat. The artificial organs field has many more biochemical questions to answer than cultured meat. A lot of information is shared between the two fields, though - methods and conditions to grow cultures, is a good example.

You can find the petition filed by the USCA in PDF format, or you can watch this video by CNBC that explains it as well.

Plant-based alternatives for dairy are widely familiar now - soy, almond and rice milk. But why not use science to create ‘cultured milk’ as well? I have not looked deeply into this, but here’s an interesting article that introduces the idea (from Theguardian.com).

The reddit science AMA about cellular agriculture is a very interesting read. Many good questions were asked and many good answers were given in return.

There were two scientific papers that I found helpful and you might find interesting:

Tuomisto, H. L., Ellis, M. J. & Haastrup, P. Environmental impacts of cultured meat: alternative production scenarios. 

van der Weele, C. & Driessen, C. Emerging Profiles for Cultured Meat; Ethics through and as Design. Animals 3, 647–662 (2013).

Thank you for reading,

semus.