The meat we eat and the way we farm it are being scrutinized more than ever. Greenhouse gases, animal welfare concerns, and overfishing are just some of the issues. Food scientists and companies worldwide are looking at alternatives, trying to make meat more ethically appealing by growing it — cell by cell — in a lab instead of on a farm.
In a few years, meat grown in laboratories may become part of our regular diet. Would you eat it? And most importantly, where does it come from? Let's dive right in.
Lab-Grown? Clean? Synthetic?
Many different names describe lab-grown meat: cultured meat, cell-based meat, clean meat, synthetic meat, slaughter-free meat, or in vitro meat. Even test-tube meat has been used!
Whatever you want to call it, it can certainly be an option to address the current situation. At present, about 130 million chickens are slaughtered every day for meat, and 4 million pigs. By weight, 60% of the mammals on earth are livestock, 36% are humans, and only 4% are wild.
Can lab-grown meat be a more ethical alternative to this?
A Bit of History of Lab-Grown Meat
The concept of cultured meat was popularized by Jason Matheny in the early 2000s after co-authoring a seminal paper1 on cultured meat production and creating New Harvest, the world's first non-profit organization dedicated to supporting in vitro meat research.
In 2013, a research team in the Netherlands created the first burger patty grown directly from cells. It cost more than $300,000 to make due to the time and labor needed to turn millions of tiny cells into the meat.
In 2018, a steak-like piece of meat grown from cells in the lab and not requiring a cow's slaughter was produced and served at a restaurant in Israel.
At the end of 2020, cultured meat, produced in bioreactors without the slaughter of an animal, has been approved for sale by a regulatory authority for the first time. Chicken nuggets, produced by the U.S. company Eat Just, have passed a safety review by the Singapore Food Agency and they will be soon on sale or available in restaurants. This has been welcomed as a landmark moment in the meat industry.
What Is Lab-Grown Meat Made of?
Lab-grown meat is not just a plant-based alternative like the Impossible Burger. It is made from actual animal cells. It is identical to meat at the cellular level.
The science behind growing meat without killing animals is relatively simple. Growing the cells that will form your yummy synthetic steak is not hugely different from other methods to produce cells that scientists have used in biology labs since the early 1900s.
The revolution and the versatility of the technology used to grow meat came from tissue engineering techniques traditionally used in regenerative medicine. The process starts with a tiny number of cells obtained from a small sample of muscle taken from a live animal (like a small biopsy). These special cells, called "satellite" cells, are stem cells with potentially infinite growing capacity. They can turn into the different cell types that compose the muscle in vivo.
When fed with a nutrient-dense serum, stem cells turn into muscle cells and proliferate, doubling in number every 2–3 days. After the cells have multiplied, scientists can grow them into structures like strips, in the same way that muscle fibers are formed in living tissue. These fibers can then be further organized in 3D structures, for example, attached to "sponge-like" scaffolds. While they keep growing in these 3D structures, the muscle cells "exercise," increasing their size and protein content. The resulting tissue can then be harvested, seasoned, cooked, and consumed as boneless processed meat.
The Challenges of Lab-Grown Meat
There are two main aspects of growing meat in a laboratory:
- Being able to grow the cells in a way that is efficient and that tastes as close to the real deal as possible
- Taking these cells and giving them the same structure, feel, and look of meat
The second point might be harder than it sounds. When it comes to making realistic lab-grown meat, one of the hardest things to replicate is not the taste but the feel. For example, let's take a steak. There're tons of different muscle cells, connective tissue, lipids, and fat. All of this plays a role in the texture, aroma, and taste.
Eventually, the companies working on lab-grown meat are to produce a complex matrix where all these types of cells do their specific job. Good news on this front came from a recent paper published in Nature Food, where researchers created a spongy 3D scaffold of soy protein to grow muscle cells into. They seeded different types of bovine cells (smooth muscle, endothelial, and satellite cells), and this combination gave the end product a lot of meat-like texture properties.2
Another challenge is represented by the cost. Suppose the technology to produce cultured meat could be scaled up to the level of industrial food processes. In that case, the prices will be significantly lower. We'll get there. For now, the race to make the first affordable cultured meat products is on.
You Gotta Convince Your Brain
The challenges related to cultured meat's look and texture are linked to the so-called "Uncanny Valley effect." The Uncanny Valley phenomenon, initially described in the robotics field, is the eerie or unsettling feeling that some people experience in response to not-quite-human figures like humanoid robots and lifelike computer-generated characters.3 It's a slight discomfort that you might feel for something that looks very much like "the real deal" but not 100% there.
Apparently, the Uncanny Valley applies also to meat, or food in general. When you have a highly sophisticated replica of something, but you are not 100% there, it forces your brain to a very small window of context. Let's take the example of a chicken nugget. If your brain is convinced that you are going to eat a chicken nugget, it expects whatever you are eating to behave exactly like a chicken nugget (to taste, feel, look exactly the same). If this is not the case, then your brain is unsettled by the experience. This happens because our brains are hardwired to ensure we are not ingesting something poisonous or contaminated.
It's Not All About Meat
We've seen that there are a lot of start-ups and non-profit organizations working on lab-grown meat, including pork, chicken, and turkey. Other lab-grown animal products are in the pipeline too.
Companies like Finless Food are trying to create fish fillets without the mercury, the plastic, and the environmental devastation from mass fishing. The idea is the same. They take real fish cells, and they grow them applying proteins, vitamins, and other factors.
Meat that's been grown from cells in a lab is now a reality.
Lab-meat is slaughter-free and potentially more eco-friendly because its production needs less land, water, and energy. “Potentially” is the word to use here because many studies are currently underway to assess whether lab production of meat is really better for the environment than factory farming.
Research carried out at the University of Oxford suggests that producing cultured beef could use as much as 99% less space than what is needed for current livestock farming methods. Research also points to greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts for lab-grown meat being substantially lower than beef from modern farming.4
However, what is 100% sure is that it will be better for animals. So much so that some vegans are also on board with the idea.
Lab-grown meat can help feed our overgrowing population in more ethical and sustainable ways. And the idea is that if it tastes right and if it feels right, people will get used to it much more quickly.5
To sum up, cellular agriculture is now a recognized field, growing at a swift pace. While there's still work to do, bringing clean meat into mainstream consumption is becoming more and more a reality.
Would you eat it?