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The Future of Food. Cultivated Meat

In 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health gathered 37 world-leading scientists to answer the question about how to feed 10 billion people sustainably and healthily.

The EAT-Lancet report defined the actions needed to support a sustainable food system and urged each of us to adopt a “planetary health diet,” a new buzzword to describe a diet dominated by plant protein.

In the previous article, I discussed the idea of taking farmed animals entirely out of food production. But given the heated debates between meat lovers and vegans and the rage ignited by dietary choices, expecting the whole world to adopt plant-based eating overnight is naïve. As one of the authors of the ambitious EAT-Lancet report, Professor Johan Rockström at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sweden, summed it up: the world needs “nothing less than a new global agricultural revolution.”

Food technologists, chefs, and scientists are joining efforts to revolutionize animal agriculture and put an alternative on our dinner plates – animal flesh that does not involve slaughtering. Cultivated meat, also known as lab-grown meat, cultured meat, cell-based meat, or clean meat, is produced from growing animal cells in vitro rather than as a part of a living animal. In this article, I choose the term “cultivated meat” for this innovation, since soon it may not be a lab experiment but the main way to produce animal flesh for food.

Cultivated meat is flesh grown outside of an animal’s body

The very first cultivated burger patty was developed in 2013 at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Since then, the growth of technologies that made lab-produced meat possible has accelerated. According to the Good Food Institute (GFI), which funds the nascent industry, the first cultivated meatball was grown in 2016, and in 2017, cultivated fish, chicken, and duck were served up.

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In 2019, the Israeli food technology start-up Aleph Farms brought cultivated meat technology …to space. Pioneers in the field (and space?), Aleph Farms 3D bio-printed some beef on the International Space Station for the first time.

What does it take to cultivate meat? The production of cultivated meat builds upon the science of tissue engineering. The first step is taking a cell sample from an animal. This could be done by taking a tissue biopsy or using non-invasive methods such as taking a feather from a chicken.

The manufacturing process then involves cell proliferation and differentiation. The cells are placed into a bioreactor with cell culture media, which feeds the cells and causes them to proliferate. A change in culture conditions triggers the cells to differentiate into muscle, fat, and connective tissue, allowing manufacturers to produce various types of meat. An edible scaffold can be used to mold and organize the cells into a desired structure in order to produce more complicated products such as steak or fillet.

This, of course, is a simplified description of a generalized process. Each manufacturer is developing its own “recipe” using different cell types, cell culture media, bioreactors, and scaffolding to replicate the sensory and nutritional profile of conventionally produced meat.

Is cultivated meat “clean”?

The “space beef” was bio-printed using technologies that aim to make meat “clean” not only for the hygienic environment of astronauts but also here on Earth. Growing meat in factories that look very similar to beer breweries eschews the horrors and messiness of slaughterhouses. As no antibiotics are used, the threat of antibiotic-resistant pathogens decreases. There is no risk of fecal contamination, which is a major avenue for contamination of carcasses in slaughterhouses. In theory, due to the level of control and sterile environment, the threat of zoonotic diseases may be entirely eliminated.

„Mosa Meat“ employee inspecting a flask in a lab for cultivated meat. This start-up based in the Netherlands raised $55 million dollars in 2013. ©Mosa meat
Inside a lab of "Supermeat" - a cultivated meat startup based in Israel. ©Supermeat

I said “in theory,” since cultivated meat producers have yet to tackle some problematic areas in the production process. Remember the cell culture media that feed the cells? At this stage of production, producers face a serious public health and ethical challenge – fetal bovine serum (FBS) is widely used for cell culture media because of its high level of growth-promoting factors. To produce this serum, humans remove fetuses from pregnant cows. The mother cow dies, whereas the fetus is kept alive only to endure the painful extraction of blood via cardiac puncture.

Animal activists denounce the use of FBS as extremely cruel. The industry, on the other hand, has practical issues with FBS. FBS can contain pathogens (bacteria and viruses) and is costly. Some companies, thus, are racing to find non-animal alternatives and pledging to ditch FBS in the future. Frontrunner companies Mosa Meat of the Netherlands and the American Eat Just have already removed FBS from their cell culture medium and are using a plant-based nutrient recipe to feed cells.

Whether FBS will disappear from the industry remains a matter of speculation, as the manufacturing of cultivated meat has not been commercialized yet. If such an ingredient is permitted, it would stain the whole idea of “clean” and “slaughter-free” meat and anger animal advocates, who are already alarmed that unethical practices are adopted in product development.

Dispelling ambiguities in an emerging industry

Cultivated meat is advertised as “clean” not only because it (largely) trades slaughterhouses for labs and breweries, but also because of its potential to be environmentally sustainable. Isaac Emery, a senior environmental scientist of GFI, said to Scienceline, “We won’t be growing the bones and the skin and the intestines that take up resources. We’ll be vastly more efficient in the land we use.” In addition to saving us land, cultivated meat claims to be resource and water efficient and low in carbon emissions. Imagine a world where no forests are cleared to grow crops to feed animals or to graze them, no methane is produced by cows, and no animal parts are wasted. Sounds too good to be true?

"Until industrial production methods and final products are developed, the claims about animal welfare, human health, and environmental sustainability remain somewhat vague"

While some advantages, for example, land use, are apparent, other sustainability claims require further assessment. Researchers note that for the time being, it is extremely energy intensive to produce cultivated meat. Further research will also be needed to investigate human health safety issues. In short, there are more unknowns than knowns; will commercial production methods involve genetic engineering? What type of growth medium will be used?

Theoretically, if technical hiccups are addressed, cultivated meat has the potential to be a lifesaving and transformative technology. But until industrial production methods and final products are developed, the claims about animal welfare, human health, and environmental sustainability remain somewhat vague.

Can cultivated meat put an end to animal suffering?

Let us leave the technicalities aside and examine the very idea of cultivated meat on a more philosophical basis. A variety of people, from animal activists (e.g. PETA) and vegans to corporate entrepreneurs and academics, believe that cultivated meat will save billions of animal lives and essentially be a great technological solution to environmental and public health problems caused by our appetite for animal flesh.

My biggest concern is, as critical animal studies scholar Vasile Stanescu puts it, “We are not going to beat speciesism with speciesism.” The danger of cultivated meat is that it elevates and strengthens meat culture. The myth that meat is inevitable and irreplaceable is reinforced. The bottom-line is that the “technological fix” keeps people eating meat. It keeps meat as a concept on the plate, permeated in cultural values.

While the meat industry (conventional or cultivated) presents itself as merely responding to the ever-growing demand, the truth is that historically, the animal agriculture sector (with the help of governments) has been spending millions to create and stimulate our appetite for meat, fish, and other animal products.

Idealists, such as Bruce Friedman of GFI, have faith that eventually, cultivated meat will completely replace the carcasses of once-living sentient beings. Yet there is no guarantee this will be the case. On the contrary, big business may simply increase its profits by diversifying and at the same time improving their public relations.

In fact, this is already happening. Large corporations such as Tyson Foods and Cargill that are exploiting a staggering number of animals (and humans who work for them) are now investing in cultivated meat. Sceptics might say that cultivated meat may play a role in satisfying the growing demand for meat that otherwise could not be met due to the lack of land and other environmental limits, but it will not shut factory farms down. Have we ever heard of an industry that got rid of itself?

Technologies do not solve moral problems

Assuming cultivated meat becomes a profitable product, a consumer who is uninformed or disinterested in ethics may still prefer meat from slaughtered animals. Perhaps they would even pay more for it, creating a premium market for meats that are valued precisely because the animals are killed. Meat from animals might be perceived as more natural, even if there is little natural in the way most farmed animals live and die; today’s industrial farms confine farmed animals for most of their lives and prevent most natural behaviors.

"Cultivated meat does nothing to solve public health issues linked to meat consumption, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer"

Earlier in 2020 , a study published in Frontiers in Nutrition reported that 72% of respondents belonging to Generation Z (aged 18 to 25) were not ready to accept cultivated meat despite having concerns for animal welfare and the environment.

Perhaps we should not get distracted by the idea of a technological fix and focus on existing solutions to help animals, humans, and the planet – reducing the consumption of animal products, cutting down on food waste, and promoting healthy diets. How extreme is the idea that we need better education rather than more meat products? Of note, cultivated meat does nothing to solve public health issues linked to meat consumption, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Can we value food for compassion?

Until recently, the notion of cultivated meat was limited to sci-fi movies and books. Today, it seems like a foreseeable future. According to “Cultivated Meat: 2019 State of the Industry Report” produced by GFI, twenty cultivated meat companies launched in 2019 alone. While there are no cultivated meat products yet on the market, the Institute For The Future predicts that they will be a common sight at the butcher in the next ten years.

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The European Commission gave Meatable, a start-up in the Netherlands, a $3 million grant to bring cultivated pork to the market. In Belgium, the Flemish minister for innovation granted 3.6 million euros to develop cultivated foie gras.

Instead of holding on to the past and dismissing cultivated meat as Frankenstein food, I suggest we keep an open mind. The climate crisis and other environmental issues, exploitation of farmed animals and slaughterhouse workers, public health issues (think antibiotics and zoonotic diseases), poverty, and resource scarcity are complex challenges to solve. We need every tool at our disposal.

Historically, we valued (and still value) foods that are cruel. For instance, foie gras and lobster boiled alive provide culinary experiences in which the element of cruelty figures not as a by-product but as a vital ingredient. Arguably, however, most people eat meat not because of how it is produced but despite how it is produced.

In principle, cultivated meat producers could reduce farmed animal suffering and the impact on the environment on an enormous scale, provided we want them to do so. But if such a technology is developed for the sake of efficiency alone, our relationship with animals and the environment remains broken. The essential “ingredient” for agricultural transformation is compassion.

Elena Lazutkaitė is a doctor in Critical Theory and Cultural Studies at The University of Nottingham.