The Dubious Prospects of Lab Meat

» August 26th, 2014

“Cultured meat”—edible animal flesh that’s grown through “tissue engineering techniques”—may not be the most appetizing prospect on the culinary horizon. But it has entered the heady lexicon of sustainability for good reason.

As a recent Oxford University/University of Amsterdam study revealed, lab-grown meat could slake our inveterate craving for burgers while consuming 82-96 percent less water, producing 78-96 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and occupying 99 percent less land. “We are catering to beef eaters who want to eat beef in a sustainable way,” Mark Post, the Maastricht University physiologist who spent years developing lab meat with the financial support of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, told Bloomberg.

Equally relevant for many consumers is the fact that lab meat appears to be more humane than current methods of production. While it’s true that production now requires stem cells to be extracted from living cattle and marinated in the blood of cow fetuses, Post is hopeful that fetal bovine serum (as the extraction is called) might someday be replaced with blue algae, thus obviating this phase of exploitation. Whatever method is eventually used, if lab meat catches on there’s much evidence to suggest that we might substantially reduce the assembly line of cattle pouring into the abattoir.

Lab meat, even by today’s industrialized standards, is a relatively outlandish proposition. But that hasn’t kept media assessments from being surprisingly upbeat about its potential. In 2011, a normally skeptical Michael Specter warmed to the idea, writing in the New Yorker that, in terms of technology, a lab burger could viably approximate the taste and texture of a real burger and, in turn, offer a viable substitute for it. Costs were prohibitive, he noted, but then what successful technology wasn’t unduly expensive at the outset?In USA Today, Farm Sanctuary’s advocacy director, Bruce Friedrich, pounced on the Oxford study to deem lab meat clean, green, and lean—not to mention a product that had him eager to “fire up the grill” and end the meat industry “as we know it.”

Others have been less sanguine. David Steele, a molecular biologist and head of Earthsave Canadatells me that lab meat “is extraordinarily unlikely to work.” Tens of thousands of calves, he notes, “will have their hearts punctured … to collect the liter or so of serum that can be taken from them.” The claim that lab meat might be propagated with blue algae, he says, “is patently absurd” as “no one has accomplished anything close.” He also notes something so obvious I wish I had recalled it on my own: Cultured cells lack an immune system. As a result, according to Steele, “there will be a need for at least large doses of penicillin/streptomycin.” Preventing the spread of viruses within these cultures “would be a huge additional problem.” And as far as allergies go, who knows?

Daniel Engber, a science writer and editor at Slate, is equally downbeat about the future of cultured meat. He posted a piece earlier this month with a headline declaring lab meat to be “a waste of time.” Acknowledging the ecological and welfare implications of the technology, he highlights what strikes me as a critical point: Lab meat only seems to be “real” when it’s adulterated with food-like substances designed to “improve color, flavor, and mouthfeel.”

In this respect, there’s nothing novel to ponder about the slab of lab meat. It’s a heavily processed, fabricated food that’s essentially no different than the plant-based substitutes that are becoming increasingly popular. So, Engber justifiably wonders: “What’s the point?” After all, do cultured cow cells dressed up to look like real meat “really get us any closer to a perfect substitute for flesh than soy or wheat or mushroom?” Not a bad question, given that the market for lab meat would likely be the same market that currently eats Tofurky (myself included).

As Engber suggests, the discussion of cultured cells has overlooked, well, culture. Eating meat for many consumers is about more than just eating meat. Lab meat is about more than technological feasibility. As much as I would love to see cultured meat replace its conventional counterpart, I’m fairly certain that the culinary tastemakers, not to mention the vast majority of consumers, will never go for it. It’s heavily processed (not pure, not authentic, not “all natural”); it’s divorced from tradition (can you imagine grandma’s chicken fried steak made with a cut of lab meat?); and, in the simplest terms, it’s not meat (at least as we know meat).

Culinary change happens all the time, and there’s no doubt radical changes are required if we ever hope to achieve a just food system. But, at this stage, I think we’re better off encouraging consumers not to eat the stuff at all rather than asking them to fake it with a redundant substitute.

This piece originally ran in Pacific Standard in 2013. 

12 Responses to The Dubious Prospects of Lab Meat

  1. Mountain says:

    That’s a bit unfortunate. In my experience, milk alternatives (soy, almond, rice, coconut) have been key in getting people to give up milk. I assume that creating a critical mass of people giving up meat will require something similar– an alternative that feels to the consumer like they aren’t really giving up anything.

    The good news is that, even if lab meat is destined to be a failure, there are lots of plant-based alternatives that could be breakout successes. Does anyone know the size of the market for meat alternatives vs. actual meat? The options are much better than they were 20 years ago, but I haven’t heard of a real breakout that non-vegans eat on a regular basis, the way lots of non-vegans drink milk alternatives all the time.

    • Ellen K says:

      I don’t know the numbers, but am cheering for Ethan Brown. Might his “Beefy Crumbles” be just such a breakout?

  2. It’s frightening how entrenched people’s habits are. It seems that meat-eaters won’t even try a vegetarian or vegan alternative. I wish I knew why, because obviously they aren’t unadventurous within their regime. However, in my country there are very few ready-made alternatives that would make a vegan’s life easier in the kitchen. I remember when I became a vegetarian I tried a vegetarian burger from a fast-food franchise and was struck by how much nicer their concoction was than the usual hamburger. We have soya products that are quite good but I doubt that they are ever considered by non-vegetarians/vegans. It seems that compassion doesn’t lead them to try alternatives. In Africa, and maybe elsewhere, having a steak is prestigious – like arriving in a Jaguar. It really seems to me that when all is considered, the problem is an absence of empathy and compassion, or at least the absence of those qualities in sufficient degree. It seems clear that the artificially created meat will be another racket dragging out the habit and delaying the change that people need to make to get away once and for all from the cruel habit. If only the market for meat alternatives could be marketed correctly in a concerted effort to change the mind-set.

  3. Hi! says:

    Think about it. Really think about it.

    The animal rights movement opposing this technology might be the worst thing that could happen for the animals.

    Changing things will not be easy, but it is possible. It won’t happen if the animal rights movement decides to irrationally hold on to the idea of a ‘vegan revolution’, which is never going to happen. It’s not happening in the Western world, and it’s definitely not happening anywhere else.

    People are not holding on to the idea of eating animals, they are holding on to the idea of eating meat. And no, not ‘plant meat’. Meat. Meat has to be meat. Meat doesn’t have to be animals – people don’t really like the idea of eating animals – but meat has to be meat.

    Trying to change culture at this point is not realistic. And being unrealistic is being sadistic towards the animals. We can’t take meat away from people, but we can gradually change what meat means. And this will make changing culture possible.

    This generation won’t get it, but the next generation will if we play our cards right. In a world where cultured meat already has been an existing alternative for a few decades, it will sooner or later start to seem like the obvious choice compared to the idea of eating dead animals. In the end, modern societies tend to choose the more rational, more humane way to behave.

    These things take time. An in vitro revolution won’t be easy. But unlike a vegan revolution, it can happen, so let’s stop wasting time.

    • James says:

      I don’t think I follow. You state a “vegan revolution” isn’t possible but imply that a mass acceptance of lab meat is. So: what are the reasons the former is not going to happen while the latter is? Second, lab meat is “meat,” at least insofar as it’s cultured from the fetal serum of animals. Thus it’s not clear to me why consumers who chose to eat this alternative are making the meat/animal distinction you suggest they are.

      • Hi again says:

        Cultured meat can happen without culture having to change first. People won’t have to give up their traditions. Cultured meat can happen without an immense ethical revolution having to happen first.

        A vegan revolution… It’s simply not going to happen. Not in this century. Let’s accept this. All the reasons to go vegan are out there, and people are not going vegan. Not even vegetarian. Even when they do, about 75% of them will go back to eating meat sooner or later. And this is the Western world. The rest of the world hardly knows what veg(etari)anism means. Try to get a person in Japan to give up eating fish.

        Cultured meat has the potential to make animal activism significantly easier.

        Try to get an average person to go vegan. Show them slaughterhouse footage. They will tell you that it’s horrible, but it’s very likely that they won’t be ready to give up their cherished traditions. So they will come up with excuses: they could never give up eating meat because “eating meat is normal”, “lions eat zebras”, “plants have feelings”, “meat is healthy”, “I need my protein”. They are not justifying animal abuse (nobody likes animal abuse), they are justifying the act of eating meat. Really, the main reason that they won’t give up eating meat is that eating meat is socially important. It’s too important. For a lot of people, not eating meat would be socially awkward. People also tend to think that meat = protein = strength.

        Okay. Let’s imagine that we live in a world where we already have tasty, healthy, clean and cheap cultured ‘animal’ products – or, eventually, cultured ‘animal’ products that are tastier, healthier, cleaner and cheaper than actual animal products. We have these facts behind us, and they are an important part of campaigning.

        Now, let’s try to get an average person to start favouring cultured meat. They already know it exists and more and more people are getting more and more comfortable with the idea. Let’s show them slaughterhouse footage. This time, _they won’t come up with excuses_, because we’re not asking them to _give up anything_. They won’t have to give up traditions or the cultural ideas linked to meat-eating. They may be worried about the health aspects, but we will have the facts behind us. Possibly being of a generation that grew up in a world where cultured meat didn’t exist, they may think cultured meat is gross – well, it’s not nearly as gross as the slaughterhouse footage they just saw.

        Simply, going vegan means giving up a lot. Ideally, cultured ‘animal’ products won’t mean giving up anything. It’s a much easier change. There is and will be an ecological and humanitarian pressure to do something, and if people are going to go along with something, this kind of change is a lot more likely than the whole world going vegan.

        Also, there’s the aspect of Cool; the way people play identity games. Currently, veganism is considered the “sentimental” choice, meat-eating the “rational” one. Eventually, cultured meat might start to seem like the rational choice for several reasons, and holding on to eating animals might start to seem old-fashioned, unnecessary, and, well, stupid.

        When it comes to the practical difficulties – they are real. Creating tasty, healthy, clean and cheap cultured ‘animal’ products won’t be easy. But these difficulties can and must be overcome. It will be difficult, but it won’t be impossible. If we get this to work, this will the best opportunity the animals are going to get in our lifetime.

  4. Dylan says:

    Any thoughts on the “real vegan cheese” project that uses modified yeast to produce casein proteins?

  5. Rhys Southan says:

    Lab meat would be great, but I agree with your skepticism about the scalability and veganability of the technology. I feel like the organizations working on it aren’t always straightforward about those problems. They never mention fetal bovine serum if they can avoid it, and I haven’t seen them explain why they’re so confident that algae will work.

    I’m not really worried about people not wanting to try it because they’re grossed out. I think the idea of lab-grown meat fits in well with how society seems to be going. In general, people are embracing technology as a fix for all sorts of inefficiencies, and I imagine a lot of people would feel the same about lab meat. The same people wanting to try soylent will try lab meat, and younger generations likely won’t grow up with all the same taboos that might make older generations afraid to try something like this. Show a kid slaughterhouse footage before they choose the lab meat or the formerly sentient meat and I think a lot of kids will pick the lab meat. Assuming the lab meat tasted as good and offered all the same things that people like about meat.

  6. unethical_vegan says:

    i’m completely disinterested in cultured muscle and vasculature as a meat replacement. even if it can be veganized it will be an enormously inefficient way to produce food. — at best a luxury for wealthy bobos.

    the bulk of people who purchase veg morningstar farms sausage patties are omnivores. to me this suggests that plant-based meats that can satisfy omnivores will eventually be developed.

  7. Ruth says:

    I cant understand why the “lab meat” research is going on at all when there are so many plant based fake meats. They just ought to be promoted far more than they are.

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