Lab-grown meat and cultured meat

Cultured meat, lab-grown meat, and clean meat all refer to the same thing – cells taken from a live animal and cultured in a lab, then built into a piece of meat which is biologically identical to meat from a slaughtered animal. In this article, we discuss lab-grown meat and the required social changes and process improvements required to achieve widespread adoption.

Reasons to culture meat

Meat grown in a laboratory releases 96% less greenhouse gas than conventionally grown meat, fulfills the protein needs of the world’s growing population, and reduces the ethical conflict many people feel about slaughtering animals for food.

The United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that the demand for meat will increase by 66% over the next 40 years. As a point of reference, about 50 billion chickens were slaughtered for consumption in 2020. The alternative meat market is growing rapidly to meet this need and it is estimated to be a $140 billion industry by 2029, comprising 10% of the global meat industry.

How is lab-grown meat made?

Cultured meat is not grown as part of an animal, but is instead grown in a lab.

Step 1: harvesting cells and developing a cell line

Cells are first harvested from tissue culture biopsies, from cells banks, or (for chickens) at the root of a feather.  The tissue sample may be either primary cells or stem cells. Primary cells are differentiated muscle or fat cells whereas stem cells are undifferentiated. While primary cells reproduce in greater numbers, stem cells are more controllable, proliferate faster, and live longer.

Step 2: growing a seed train and transferring to a bioreactor

Once the cells are selected and the cell line is developed, the seed train is grown in a petri dish which is then transferred to a bioreactor for sustained growth. The bioreactor is a highly monitored and regulated environment that closely replicates the growing conditions within an animal. The cells are fed a growth medium, often fetal bovine serum, which consists of proteins, vitamins, sugars, hormones, and other nutrients and growth factors.

The cells naturally form myotubes about 0.3 mm long, which then form a ring and grow into muscle tissue. At this point, they can be attached to scaffolding such as 3D printed soy protein, which stretches the tissue so it grows and increases in protein content. After about 14 days, the cells develop into the equivalent of raw, minced meat.

What are the risks of culturing and eating lab-grown meat?

Ultimately, cultured meat is considered to be safer than conventional meat. Because the tissue is grown in a bioreactor, there are no digestives organs or animal wastes present. This drastically reduces the risk of contamination from bacteria such as E. coli. There is also no risk of disease outbreak in lab-grown meat, whereas factory farmed animals require vaccinations to stay healthy. Culturing meat is additionally more efficient, as only the edible portions of the meat are grown and there is no organ or bone waste.

There are still risks and unknowns in lab-grown meat, such as contamination during processing. Cells also run the risk of developing mutations that could lead to cancer. This is a risk inherent to all human and animal cells, though, and most mutations are harmless. Finally, it is currently unknown whether lab-grown meat can replicate the micronutrients such as iron which are an important benefit of eating meat.

What does cultured meat taste like?

Cultured meat looks, tastes, and smells like conventional meat from a slaughtered animal. However, replicating the texture of conventional meat is challenging, and currently most cultured meat resembles “unstructured” meats such as ground beef, chicken nuggets, and sausage.

Initial iterations of cultured meats were additionally dry and tasteless with limited fat content making for a healthier, but less enjoyable, hamburger. Extensive research in optimization of scaffolding methods and fat to muscle cell ratios has led to significant progress toward the goal of developing lab-grown meats with perfect taste and textures.

What are the environmental implications of lab-grown meat?

This is the subject of a significant amount of research. Early studies show that agricultural greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by up to 90% if we switched to primarily lab-grown meats. However, culturing meat is an energy and water intensive process, so the true environmental effects are dependent on whether our energy is coming from fossil fuels or renewable energy sources.

Another metric looks at the amount of land used to grow the meat. Unsurprisingly, culturing meat takes up significantly less acreage than pasturing livestock. In fact, a study by the University of Oxford estimates that the factories required to produce cultured meat would take up 99% less space than livestock farming! However, less livestock means less manure production, which could have negative implications for soil fertility and carbon content.

What are the biggest challenges to lab-grown meat?

Public perception

Cultured meat is a promising alternative for individuals who do not eat meat for ethical or environmental reasons. However, the general population is historically not keen on cutting back meat consumption and there can be hesitation toward eating foods deemed to be unnatural. Foods seen as “high tech” tend to receive pushback, and the negativity is often reinforced by the agricultural industry looking to avoid competition.

Regulatory landscape

In 2019, Singapore became the first country to approve a lab-grown meat: chicken grown in bioreactors, created by the US-based company Eat Just. Other countries are also slowly looking into approvals. Meanwhile, the FDA has not determined whether cultured meats will be classified and regulated in the same way as conventional meat products.

Taste and texture

Despite major improvements to cultured meats, they are not yet able to fully replicate the experience of eating meat from an animal. Most improvements have been to the “unstructured” meats such as ground beef, sausage, and other highly processed meats like chicken nuggets.  Steak is definitely considered to be the “holy grail” of lab-grown meats. Improvements in this area are expected to result from further research into scaffolding and muscle to fat ratios.

Cost and scale

The first lab-grown hamburger was eaten in 2013, and cost about $325,000. Only four years later, that price fell to about $600. In 2020, a single lab-grown chicken nugget was made for $11 and sold for $50. Given that 10 fast food chicken nuggets may sell for $5, cultured meat clearly isn’t at market prices yet. However, the price is rapidly dropping with improvements in engineering and production capabilities.

Cultured meat also has yet to benefit from economies of scale. Singapore’s chicken nugget was grown in a 1,200 L bioreactor, while a mass produced version would likely be grown in a bioreactor ranging from 10,000 to 50,000 L.

Will lab-grown meat become more common?

It seems quite likely that lab-grown meat will become more prevalent. Cultured meat is clean, drug-free, environmentally friendly, and eliminates most of the ethical concerns around animal treatment. And various companies are already working to grow chicken, beef, pork, and fish in the lab.

While there are still uncertainties in this field, some in the realm of public perception and others scientific, the potential benefits are substantial. As the cost to consumers of cultured meat becomes equivalent to or cheaper than conventional meat, and as the technology for better textures improves, it is highly likely that the benefits of lab-grown meat will become too great to pass up.

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