🧠 Explainer: Lab-Grown Meat

Everything you need to know about lab-grown meat

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What is lab-grown meat?

Lab-grown meat, cultivated meat, cultured meat, or cell-based meat - whatever you want to call it - is meat grown in a lab, outside of an animal’s body.

It’s not plant-based meat. It’s real meat that comes from live animal cells, but was never, technically, alive.

laboratory petri dish lab grown meat

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How is lab grown meat made?

Scientists grow living tissues separate from a living organism by using stem cells - cells that do not yet have a determined outcome - collected from an animal. Placed in a petri dish with amino acids and carbs and other good stuff that cells like causes the cells to multiply and differentiate into primitive fibers that are bulked up to form muscle tissue.

Cells are placed in a bioreactor, and after a couple of weeks, cells are harvested, killed, and BAM! (has Wolfgang Puck trademarked that yet?) You’ve got a hamburger.

Some product developers say that one tissue sample can produce enough meat to make 80,000 quarter-pounders. That’s a little less than 80 times more than you can get from a cow.

Is lab grown meat vegetarian?

Not to be confused with plant-based meat, lab-grown meat is real meat. It doesn’t require slaughtering a farm animal, which may check some ethical boxes often considered when someone opts for a vegetarian diet.

Of course, animal welfare is just one of many reasons someone may choose a vegetarian diet. Most advocates for lab-grown meat argue that it's really intended to be marketed toward people who eat livestock as an eco- and animal-friendly way to keep eating meat.

Is lab grown meat vegan?

Still no, although in this case, the production is still working out some ethical critiques from people who choose a vegan diet.

This is because 20 percent of the growth medium comes from fetal bovine serum, which helps encourage cells to begin dividing. The fetal bovine serum comes from the blood of a cow fetus, which is definitely not vegan and a large reason why the production of lab-grown meat is so expensive.

Developers have sought alternatives, with a team successfully using precision fermentation to produce the necessary proteins with genetically modified yeast. However, it is still difficult to scale up these alternatives, and fetal bovine serum is currently used in Singapore, the only market where lab-grown meat is available for sale.

Lab grown meat pros and cons

Lab-grown meat is marketed as the eco-friendly answer to the environmental disaster that is industrial farming, which requires a huge amount of land use, energy, water, and emissions. Of course, factory farming is a big issue for reasons beyond its environmental impact. Unfortunately, there’s no way of saying for sure that lab-grown meat will be better for the environment until it’s in mass production, and some studies have already warned that the production of lab-grown meat might not be so green after all.

Not to mention, the overconsumption of meat is connected to a slew of adverse health impacts, so the best answer to an alternative to traditionally farmed meat might not be more meat.

That being said, eating meat is deeply entrenched in many cultures, and getting more people to reduce their meat consumption might not be the most realistic plan, especially because we need to drastically cut agricultural emissions, starting yesterday.

Another potential benefit of lab-grown meat is that because it is grown in a sterile lab environment, it doesn’t have to contend with zoonotic diseases like factory farms do and is therefore antibiotic-free. And because it is cultivated in a lab from the cellular stage, scientists can theoretically create “designer meat” that has its nutritional content altered or even tailored to a specific person’s needs.

But what about the taste?

Lab grown hamburger

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Lab grown meat vs real meat

Muscle and fat cells require different conditions and nutrients to grow, so it is difficult to produce a beautifully marbled steak in the lab, which is unfortunate because fat is a big part of what makes meat taste delicious.

Muscle and fat cells are harvested as a formless paste - not exactly the most appetizing menu item. So far, the easiest types of meat to reproduce have been meats that we shape already from real meat, like chicken nuggets and hamburgers.

While the flavors are (apparently) indistinguishable, it may be some time before the masses are eating a lab-grown meat-lovers poutine.

Lab grown meat companies

Lab-grown meat companies are developing products from the whole farm - beef, pork, poultry, and seafood.

The FDA has stated that it views Upside Foods products as safe to eat. Now the company is just waiting on approval from the USDA before it can sell its products domestically.

When will lab grown meat be available?

While McKinsey is estimating  that the lab-grown meat market will reach $25 billion by 2030, the industry needs to overcome some major hurdles before that can happen.

Lab grown meat cost

The first lab-grown hamburger ever made was in 2012, and it cost over $325 000 to produce. That hamburger better have had at LEAST some cheese. Fancy cheese, not a Kraft single.

While costs have decreased significantly since then, lab-grown meat products still aren’t commercially viable. A big piece of the puzzle will be convincing people to eat it, regardless of how safe and tasty it is, and changing the way people eat is hard.

Regardless, several start-ups say that they are expecting lab-grown meat products to be on the shelves of your local grocery store within a few years. Would you eat it?

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