As one commentator put it: “Livestock farming is a known contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and deforestation, and a huge consumer of water, energy, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The production of meat through tissue culture could have immense effects in reducing the environmental impact of our agriculture system, minimizing threats to public health, addressing issues of animal welfare, and providing food security. Cultured meat represents the crucial first step in finding a sustainable alternative to meat production.”
Proponents claim even more benefits: lab meat could be made on demand in poor countries that can’t afford refrigeration, making “unmeat an enormous boon for energy-poor developing regions.” And lab meat could provide “very soft and tender meat for elderly people.” Lab meat would be healthier too, because it could be engineered to contain less saturated fat and heme iron, and more omega-3 fatty acids.
According to Australian Julian Savulescu, described as a “bioethnecist,” “Artificial meat stops cruelty to animals, is better for the environment, could be safer and more efficient, and even healthier. We have a moral obligation to support this kind of research. It gets the ethical two thumbs up.”
These efforts to sell a processed product remind me of the push to sell poisonous, bitter, yucky soy foods just a few decades ago “as a sustainable alternative to meat production.” For example, 1982 booklet described soy foods as “. . . uniformly high in protein but low in calories, carbohydrates and fats, entirely devoid of cholesterol, high in vitamins, easy to digest, tasty and wonderfully versatile in the kitchen, [which] positions them as irresistible new food staples for the evolving American diet. . . . with each mouth-watering soy food dish,” said the author, “comes a balanced, adequate and sustainable nutritional package.”
And this: “Just imagine you could grow the perfect food. This food not only would provide affordable nutrition, but also would be delicious and easy to prepare in a variety of ways. It would be a healthful food, with no saturated fat. In fact, you would be growing a virtual fountain of youth on your back forty.” The author is Dean Houghton, writing in the year 2000 for The Furrow2, a magazine published in twelve languages by the John Deere tractor company. “This ideal food would help prevent, and perhaps reverse, some of the world’s most dreaded diseases. You could grow this miracle crop in a variety of soils and climates. Its cultivation would build up, not deplete, the land. . . this miracle food already exists. . . It’s called soy.”
I think the parallels with lab meat are obvious. Let’s zero in on some of the arguments used to promote this new miracle food:
GOOD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
Arguments for lab meat capitalize on the fact that factory production of beef (and other animal foods, from pigs to fish) is an abomination; basically modern agriculture has turned the sacred cow into a receptacle for corn—which suits the USDA just fine because its mandate is to sell grain, not to promote any kind of rational agricultural policy. The result is millions of monocropped acres poisoned with RoundUp and other noxious chemicals and requiring huge amounts of water, and animals crowded together in feed lots creating a festering environmental nightmare.
The answer to this crazy system is to put our animals back on pasture eating the food they were designed to eat, using moveable electric fencing to move them daily to new pasture, a system that maximizes soil fertility and the creation of topsoil. There are literally billions of acres available to raise livestock this way, most of which cannot support the production of grains or produce. Properly raised, beef is the most environmentally friendly meat, because unlike poultry, fish or pigs, beef animals will grow well without any grain whatsoever. The only water they need is the water they drink—which is much less per pound of beef than what’s needed to produce a loaf of bread. But why mention such a sensible solution when you’ve got grant money to develop lab meat?
One dirty little secret about lab meat is that the cells need a nutrient-rich “serum” to grow in. For animal cells, the serum is comprised of sugars (probably derived from corn), amino acids (probably made in China, and usually out of corn) and animal blood. The blood that all lab-grown meat so far requires is a product called fetal bovine serum or FBS. FBS is byproduct made from the blood of cow fetuses. If a cow coming for slaughter happens to be pregnant (often the case with dairy cows), the cow is killed and bled, and then the fetus is removed from the womb and brought into a blood collection room. There the live fetus gets a needle inserted into its heart. Its blood is then drained until the fetus dies, a death that usually takes about five minutes. This blood is then refined, and the resulting extract is FBS. Since the demand for FBS is high (it’s used for more things than culturing lab meat, such as making vaccines), millions of fetuses are slaughtered in this cruel way.
Recognizing this problem, a company called Meatable says it has figured out how to make a serum from stem cells taken from umbilical cords, called pluripotent stem cells. But other lab meat start-up companies have avoided using pluripotent stem cells because they are hard to control in a lab environment. Meatable has raised more than three million dollars so far to prove that they can live up to their claims.
Of course, all this begs the question, why not just eat meat from animals humanely slaughtered rather than a processed product tied to so much suffering?
Will lab meat require less energy to produce than real meat, so that it “could be made on demand in poor countries that can’t afford refrigeration?” One skeptic, Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, speculates that the energy and fossil fuel requirements of large-scale cultured meat production may be more environmentally destructive than producing food off the land. The bioreactor needed to produce lab meat requires a lot of energy, as does the production of sugars and amino acids for the growth serum. Sorry, but I don’t think that lab meat is a priority for “countries that can’t afford refrigeration.” These countries need live animals on small farms, so that they can collect eggs, milk and meat from the land and eat them immediately.
By the way, a good question to ask is whether lab meat will require more corn than feedlot beef? My guess is that the amount would be similar. All that corn will be sprayed with Roundup and other chemicals. No one is making the claim that lab meat will be organic.
It would be a mistake to assume that lab meat is a clean product, free of antibiotics and other harmful chemicals. In addition to FBS, the serum in which the cells are grown often contains antibiotics.
And according to one report, because cultured meats are sterile, they would require “much less nitrate” to stay safe to eat. Wait a minute! If I eat a steak or hamburger from a grass-fed steer, it will contain neither antibiotics nor nitrates. Cultured meat production also requires a preservative, such as sodium benzoate, to protect the growing meat from yeast and fungus. Collagen powder, xanthan gum, mannitol and cochineal may be used in different ways during the process.
And will this product contain vitamins B12 or B6, or serve as a rich source of zinc as real beef does? No information on this question is forthcoming.
Proponents of lab meat claim that lab meat could be healthier than beef if they engineer the product to remove the heme iron or to contain more omega-3 fatty acids. However, without heme iron, the product would be yellow, not red, and would require food coloring. Too much omega-3 would give the meat a fishy flavor. Lab meat fabricators do add fat to make the product tender and juicy, but what kind of fat? It’s not grass-fed beef tallow, for sure! The added fat most likely is some kind of hardened industrial seed oil.
And that brings us to the subject of flavor. In spite of glowing reviews, the stuff just doesn’t taste very good—“metallic” is one description for it. According to Marie Gibbons, a researcher from North Carolina State University working on cultured meat production, there is “no limit” to what scientists could do with flavor. “There’s no doubt that [cultured products] can be manipulated to achieve good flavour – it’s just a case of what chemicals react with your taste buds,” she says. She thinks cultured meats could eventually be “tastier” than traditional meat, but those tastes will likely be added after production in the form of MSG and other artificial flavors.
One thing for sure, lab meat ain’t cheap. The first cultured beef burger patty, created by Dr. Mark Post at Maastricht University and eaten with Steve Jobs-like flourish at a demonstration in August 2013 cost over three hundred thousand dollars to make. One company claims that it has gotten the cost down to just over eleven dollars per pound, still too expensive to compete with real meat. But that hasn’t deterred investment in more university research and dozens of start-ups. Many university laboratories from around the world are working on cultured meat research, and there are over thirty start-up companies in the field, all flush with investor money and enthusiasm.
For example, a company called JUST (founded in 2012 as Hampton Creek, which produced such failed vegan products as Just Mayo) has about one hundred thirty employees and a research department of fifty-five scientists developing lab-produced poultry, pork and beef. They have received funding from Chinese billionaire Li Ka-shing, Yahoo! cofounder Jerry Yang and Heineken International amongst others.
Seems like investors are just lining up to throw their dollars at technology’s latest thing. But I have a prediction for them. Lab meat will be no more successful than soy burgers or Just Mayo. People today want real food, and vegans are mostly too poor to afford highly processed food like “cultured” meat. But meanwhile, lab meat is good way to separate a lot of dot-com millionaire fools from their money.