Cultivated meat is being sold in Singapore and Israel. Where are we with the technology?
It can be called cultivated, cultured, and lab-grown, which all mean the same thing: an animal did not have to be slaughtered to source it.
The exploration of cultivated meats is on the rise. Scientists have worked for years to discover a way to grow meat in a lab using animal stem cells. By the end of 2019, 55 companies around the world were tirelessly working on the science and marketing behind this cutting-edge product. In December 2020, Singapore allowed the company Eat Just to begin producing and selling cultivated meat—the first time in history.
What exactly is cultivated meat? First, it has a variety of names. It can be called cultivated, cultured, and lab-grown, which all mean the same thing: an animal did not have to be slaughtered to source it. These stem cells used to grow the meat are typically retrieved through a biopsy of the animal, a harmless removal of a small sample of tissue. The cells are then placed in a nutrient broth that enables duplication. The final step is to place these cells into a bioreactor, a lab device that grows the cultivated meat. This entire process can take from two to eight weeks. However, scientists are working to speed up the process—and accessibility to consumers.
There are significant benefits that come from the switch to cultivated meats. Not only will this process reduce exploitation of animals but also of the Earth. Greenhouse gases produced from factory farms should be reduced substantially, and cultivated meat requires significantly less land and water than factory farms. While the impact on nutrition is still unknown, because cultured meat is sterile, there will be fewer chances of contamination. This vastly reduces the risks of transmitting diseases through bacteria such as E. coli. Additionally, while livestock nowadays ingest antibiotics to avoid infection or illness, cultivated meat production uses far less antibiotics to prevent contamination of cell cultures.
However, the ethicality of this process has come into question. In Singapore, the nutrient broth that was used to grow the cells contained fetal bovine serum—extracted from the blood of dead animals. While this is mostly removed before consumption, the product would not be considered vegan or vegetarian. Eat Just, however, did claim that they would be creating a plant-based serum for the next release. Additionally, many other companies have come out stating that their formulations are completely animal-free.
Another factor that must be addressed is the cost. Right now, this meat takes six to eighteen months to craft, which can be costly. A representative from Eat Just explained that the meat would be pricier until production was scaled up. Once this meat is being mass-produced, it would, in fact, be cheaper, although according to an expert on WebMD, the large-scale production of cultivated meats could result in a five-ounce beef burger with a price tag of $11. While this is considerably more expensive than a beef burger coming from a factory farm, it is up to the consumer whether the extra few dollars is worth the prevention of animal suffering.
You may wonder why the United States has not stepped into this arena yet. This is because the regulations for lab-grown meat in the U.S. are strict, and the process is much more complicated than in Singapore. In 2019, the FDA revealed the standards for the regulatory oversight of cultivated meats, and made the decision that this meat would require extensive oversight.This is no reason to lose hope. In 2020 alone, Memphis Meats—a food technology company focusing on cultured meat and based in California—collected over $160 million through investors like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Tyson Foods. While the involvement of one of the major meat giants in this investment is questionable, the industry is still making progress. Additionally, AT Kearney, a consulting firm, has predicted that by 2040, the majority of meat would not be derived from slaughtered animals. As Josh Tetrick of Eat Just pointed out, “It seems certain that similar products from other companies will follow. There has been so much hype on cell-cultured meat that the anticipated first steps to mass sales is a significant moment.” This is a new wave of environmentally friendly and animal friendly initiatives, which could mean an exciting future ahead.
Liana Krasnoff is an FFAC High School Fellow.