In November 2022, the FDA made a surprise announcement: It had no further questions about the safety of a lab-grown chicken product from Upside Foods, one of the largest startups attempting to produce marketable lab-grown meat. This de facto approval of the product surprised most industry analysts, who expected the regulatory battle over lab-grown meats to be much more drawn out. While the approval didn’t put the product directly on shelves, it brought a previously abstract possibility — that people could buy real meat without killing an animal — much closer to reality.
When compared to conventional meat products, best-case-scenario lab meat production could avoid many of the ethical and environmental issues that come with conventional meat production. These products aren’t completely free of animal inputs, since cell cultures, hormones and some other inputs originate from animal samples, but growing meat without livestock would largely sidestep the immense cruelty of factory farming. Supporters and investors hope that lab meats would be more appealing to some consumers than plant proteins manipulated to resemble real meat. But whenever a product alleges it has the potential to fundamentally reshape an industry, it’s worth digging deeper to figure out just how realistic those claims are.
The basics of lab meats
Growing meat without animals isn’t a new idea: It’s been a longtime staple of science fiction and futurist predictions. But it’s only in the last few decades that scientists have been able to make substantial progress on growing animal muscle that can actually be used for food. Much of the technology that’s used to grow animal cells in a lab comes from medicine, where both human and animal cells are routinely isolated and grown for both research and the production of vaccines and other medical supplies.
To produce cultured meats, scientists isolate specific cell types from animals and then grow them in tanks called bioreactors. In the bioreactor, cells are bathed in a nutrient and oxygen-rich solution that provides them with everything they need to grow and divide. After enough growth, the cells are harvested and then processed further into meat products.
As with plant-based meat alternatives, the simplest meat products to replicate are ground and processed forms like chicken nuggets and ground beef. While scientists might have figured out how to grow individual meat cells, getting them organized into something that resembles muscle is a lot more difficult. Whole-muscle cuts of cultured meat would need considerably more effort, utilizing an organic scaffold or 3-D printing techniques to organize cells into fibers that have realistic inclusion of fat and connective tissue. With those techniques still in development, marketable cultured meat products that can actually replace the wide array of meat cuts people buy still have an uncertain future.
For now, scientists have made prototypes of many different products, with chicken, pork and beef leading the pack. But many more proteins are also in development, including fish. So far, only Singapore has products for sale: Lab cultured chicken from the company Eat Just. But with the FDA’s recent approval of Upside’s chicken products, the main obstacles to cultivated meat being sold in U.S. grocery stores won’t come from bureaucratic hurdles, but instead from the difficulties of scaling and selling entirely new products.
It’s early to be evaluating lab meat’s benefits
With so few products scaled up for mass production, evaluating the nascent industry’s ethical and sustainability claims can be difficult. It certainly could score well in the animal welfare department; because the cells used in cultured meats do come from live or slaughtered animals, a cultured meat product may not wholly eliminate animal slaughter or suffering in a way that satisfies everyone who avoids meat for ethical reasons, but cultivated meat production at scale would functionally produce meat without animal deaths. Whether or not that counts as a reduction in animal suffering, however, depends entirely on whether the products actually replace conventional meat consumption rather than just sit alongside it (as with plant-based meat alternatives), which is impossible to evaluate yet.
The pounds of feed needed to create 1 pound of beef muscle in lab cultures.
Sustainability claims are also hard to evaluate at this point, though easy to understand in theory. Because cell cultures aren’t a living, breathing, moving animal, they can (at least theoretically) be much more efficient at converting nutrients into edible protein. A living cow only gains about one kilo of body weight for every six or seven pounds of food it eats and this doesn’t account for the fact that much of that body weight isn’t edible. In comparison, lab cultures are able to turn four pounds of feed into one pound of beef muscle cell , all of which is edible. For animals that are more efficient at turning feed into food, like chicken and fish, these gains would be smaller, but still significant.
With the nutrient inputs for cultured cells almost universally coming from grain and soy products, the system is still dependent on industrial crop production and all of its attendant problems, heavy chemical use that contributes to water pollution and climate change being foremost among them. So while it’s not a complete divestment from the problems of the current meat industry, it would still use dramatically fewer of these inputs than livestock do. There are also still a number of unanswered questions around energy and water usage, though early studies indicate cultivated meats would outperform conventional meat in both categories. Ultimately, cultivated meats would be a clear cut improvement over conventional meat, though this is once again contingent on their ability to replace them.
Lab meats still face significant hurdles
Unfortunately for the industry, translating the huge leaps they’ve made in product viability into product affordability isn’t so clear cut. There’s a big difference between producing a prototype of a product and producing it for actual sale. Scientists developing lab meats are working in pristine conditions, using pharmaceutical-grade inputs and stringent anti-contamination procedures. Those ingredients and practices don’t move cheaply or easily to a production floor.
Scaling animal production is fundamentally different from scaling up a cell culture: Animals might be bad at converting their food into meat, resulting in a big foodprint, but they do grow themselves. Lab-grown cell cultures need man-made infrastructure to grow inside of and the amount of it required to produce a significant amount of food is staggering, dramatically outstripping the number of bioreactors used by the medical and pharmaceutical industries today. Because cell cultures don’t have the immune system that would protect them within the body of an animal, they’re especially vulnerable to bacterial and viral contamination, which biosecurity experts say is nearly inevitable at scale.
“Unfortunately for the industry, translating the huge leaps they’ve made in product viability into product affordability isn’t so clear cut.”
Those cells also aren’t organized in a way we’d recognize as meat, which takes even more infrastructure, development and labor. With the costs of making the cells at a commercially viable volume so high, the cost of the products that use them as building blocks would be prohibitive for most consumers for the foreseeable future.
Per the industry’s analysis, this is a temporary setback: The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes plant-based and cell-cultured foods, commissioned an analysis that suggested cultivated meat products could be price-competitive as early as 2030. But other experts, as quoted by journalist Joe Fassler in 2021, say that even outside of that sanguine prediction, whether or not cultivated meats can achieve cost parity — or ever be produced at a mass-market scale at all — is still deeply uncertain.
Then there’s the image problem: Obviously, the people working on these products prefer not to call them lab meats, which conjure up conspiratorial fears of mad scientists and soylent green. But regardless of what you call them (with “cultured meat” and “cultivated meat” the industry-preferred terms) these meats are especially vulnerable to those fears. As one recent analysis pointed out, the cell lines used to develop these products are usually immortalized (mutated in a way that allows them to divide indefinitely rather than die off), a quality they share with cancer cells. And while scientists agree this doesn’t present any risk of cancer or other harms to eaters, the probability that the meat industry will label them “tumor burgers” seems inevitable.
As with the newest generation of bleedingly (literally) realistic plant-based meat alternatives, there’s a question about who cultured meats are for. While there certainly are vegetarians who miss the taste of bacon, many simply aren’t interested in eating meat, so real meat, even cruelty-free, is even less appealing than the Beyond Burgers that haven’t made their way into the diets of many vegetarians. Once again, it seems that the target customer is the conscientious omnivore, who is drawn to cultured meat because of animal welfare, environmental or social concerns.
But the existence of this class of consumer in the first place points to the battle facing cultivated meat producers. The conscientious omnivore is, by definition, aware of the issues with meat production and still buying it anyway. And given that conventional meat still dramatically outsells more expensive meat produced to some kind of higher ethical or environmental standard (pasture-raised, grassfed, humanely produced, etc.), we know that price ultimately dictates most people’s purchases, regardless of their ideas about animal welfare and the environment. Therefore, any product that actually intends to compete with conventional meat in the marketplace enough to disrupt it is going to have to come very close to it in price, which may still be years away.
Of course, it’s important to remember that food prices are, in large part, policy choices. So if we’re scrutinizing the feasibility of lab meat on cost, we have to acknowledge that conventional meat’s low price doesn’t just stem from its purported efficiency. Instead, it’s the result of farm subsidies that keep feed grain inexpensive, worker exploitation that keeps labor cheap and lax environmental policy that offloads the costs of pollution onto the environment and surrounding communities, all while completely ignoring animal welfare. Some have suggested the answer is to increase public investment in the plant-based and cultured protein industries.
But that isn’t the only answer and as other feasibility studies about cultured proteins suggest, it may not be the best place to invest. If the goal is lowering the impact of the meat industry, then dismantling those counterproductive subsidy structures and tightening regulations to actually protect the environment would go much further than pouring investment money into alternatives that still have lots of barriers in front of them. As we’ve seen from economic downturns and inflationary cycles past and present, meat demand does fall when its price rises enough, often spurring a flurry of meat-free culinary creativity independent of higher-tech substitutes.
Ultimately, cultivated meat needs a lot more investment before it can really be competitive with the conventional meat industry’s offerings. It’s clear from abundant private investment in the industry that interest isn’t going away anytime soon and there’s certainly enough scientific progress being made to justify further work. But in a high-stakes battle to reshape the food system to be more climate friendly, framing lab meat as a serviceable, demand-driven tool to chip away at conventional meat production seems premature.
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