After a decade in the making, it’s official – lab grown meats are likely to hit the market soon as regulatory approvals are now in the rearview mirror. In June 2023, the USDA issued grants of inspection to two companies, which permits the processing or harvesting of lab grown meat. This is following the green light issued by the FDA this past fall, deeming ‘cell-cultivated’ meats safe to eat. The United States is the second country in the world to approve the sale of lab grown meats, not far behind Singapore, whose lab grown chicken hit the market in late 2020.
History was made in America this past month – with federal regulatory hurdles no longer obstructing lab grown meats from landing in restaurants, supermarkets, and consumers' dinner plates all across the country. An alternative protein years in the making, with some referring to it as ‘meat without the slaughter,’ is seen by many as a monumental advancement toward disrupting the conventional meat industry. One of the approved companies, UPSIDE Foods, hopes to fill supermarket shelves within 3-5 years.
From biotech companies to university researchers, there have been considerable efforts toward the creation of lab grown meat. Remember back in 2013, when headlines about the $330,000 Lab Grown Burger sparked chatter? It was the first stem cell grown meat ever created. Earning the nicknames ‘Test Tube Burger’ and ‘In Vitro Burger,’ it was presented to a crowd of 200 people, mostly as proof of concept, proving that it’s indeed possible to grow a burger from stem cells, and eat it too. The five-year project was made possible by the hefty $300,000 donation from Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who remained anonymous at first. The feedback from the handful of taste testers mentioned that while the texture was on point, the burger lacked fat, and tasted somewhere between a “soy burger and McDonalds.” Mark Posts, the scientist responsible for turning cells into a burger, made the following prediction back in 2013:
“lab-grown meat will eventually become more palatable than plant-based meat substitutes, and less expensive than conventionally farmed beef. But that won't happen overnight. It could take 10 to 20 years for cultured meats to become commercially available.”
Fast forward to 2023 and he’s right about one thing – just ten years after the outrageously expensive burger landed on the plates of the “lucky” few, lab grown meats are well on their way to being commercially available. But instead of America’s cookout favorite, beefy burgers, cultured meat companies are laser-focused on America’s second favorite, (but your kid’s first) – chicken nuggets.
The two companies that recently navigated through the regulatory mazes of the FDA & USDA, surprisingly, are not ready to begin producing beef – it’s their cell-cultured chicken that’s front and center. Before we dive deeper into the lab grown meat discussion, let’s examine the actual process of growing and harvesting these sci-fi foods.
What IS Lab Grown Meat?
To put it simply, (keeping in mind, each company’s process is different and proprietary) lab grown meat begins with extracting cells from a living animal. Once the cells are extracted, they are put into big stainless steel cultivating vats referred to as bioreactors (some compare it to brewing beer), where the cells are fed cell culture medium, which consists of glucose, salts, vitamins, amino acids, fats, etc. This medium essentially allows the cell concoction to grow outside of an actual animal. After about two to six weeks, the cultivated “meat” is harvested, then placed into molds to shape appropriately for the desired cut, like a nugget or breast. It’s quite an arduous process, which begs the question, why?
Let’s review the three main selling points these food-focused biotech companies pitch – lab grown meat is “slaughter free,” “better for the environment” (through reducing greenhouse gas emissions), and the “solution to feed the growing population.” Then, we’ll discuss what tends to be absent from the pitches to the public - the massive market potential and the huge financial gain for investors if lab grown meat takes off.
Pitch #1: “Slaughter Free”
Lab grown meat is “slaughter free” or “meat without murder.” The selling point here is that the cells needed to cultivate their meat can be extracted from just one animal, one time – that’s it. No animal has to die or be slaughtered to feed people lab grown meat. But what’s rarely mentioned is that Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS) is used by many cell-cultured meat companies today. FBS is the serum obtained by slaughtering a pregnant cow and extracting blood from the dead calf inside her. It’s estimated that two million unborn calves are killed per year for fetal bovine serum, where their blood is turned into a precious serum used as the “special sauce” to help the cultured cell medium to grow. Knowing this, does the term “slaughter free,” seem accurate? While one may think that FBS can only be used to grow lab grown beef, it actually is used across the board in various meat categories and vaccine production. As for the two companies that just gained USDA approval this month (June of 2023) – one claims not to use FBS, and the other says it does ‘minimally.’
The company that uses FBS for its lab grown meat? UPSIDE Foods – a Bill Gates backed venture. While articles report the company is working to develop an animal serum-free media, their website states they still use it “in small amounts to sustain cell viability and growth during our cell line and developmental stage”. I thought Gates was mostly a vegan?
According to various news sources, the second newly approved company, GOOD Meat, claims they do not use FBS in their approved formulation. Their website, featuring attention-grabbing, large-font statements like “slaughter free meat,” does not state whether or not they use the deceased calf serum. They do however list the ingredients for the growth medium used to grow the chicken: corn, sugar, soy, pea, wheat, yeast, soybean oil, corn oil, corn, wheat, corn, and yeast fermentation. GOOD Meat also asserts their “real, delicious meat” has an “identical nutritional profile to conventionally raised meat.” While conventional animal feed often does contain these ingredients, some might argue that soybean oil, for example, is less potent in an animal after passing through digestion and then being processed for meat, than it may be a cell-cultivated chicken nugget grown directly in it. With it being so new, do we really know?
While I’d like to believe all companies are virtuous, consumers can easily be left in the dark when it comes to FBS, especially considering proprietary recipe agreements, which allow companies to avoid the disclosure of their ingredients and methods. The reality is, FBS is incredibly expensive. At $1,000 per liter, it’s one of the major setbacks to making lab grown meats affordable to consumers. If FBS was used anyway and lab grown meat went mainstream, can you imagine all the loss of life?
This raises an additional question – will product packages for cell-cultivated meats include the ingredients of the growth medium? It’s tricky, as meat in the grocery store is simply labeled beef, pork, or chicken…and we as consumers don’t know exactly what those animals were fed. Spoiler alert: the answer is no.
Sure, due to their use of animal cells, lab grown meats are considered “real meat,” but since lab grown meats require humans to feed the cells nutrients in big stainless steel cultivating fats – shouldn’t we know what was used? Since if no human intervention took place, they’d just be cells? Wouldn’t the nutrients humans added be considered ingredients? Based on what the USDA just released, no – the only labeling requirements for lab grown meats are that they disclose the product is “cell-cultivated.”
Pitch # 2: Environmentally Friendly
“Clean meat” that is “better for the environment” is one of the first cards pulled in the sales pitch deck of lab grown meat companies. This is because agriculture is undeservingly villainized for its greenhouse gas emissions. However, to provide perspective, agriculture as a whole only accounts for ten percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. The leading contributor is Transportation at 28% followed by Electric Power 25%, Industry (burning fossil fuels to create products from raw materials – insert lab grown meat companies) at 23%, Commercial and Residential at 13%, and finally Agriculture at 10%.
Diving into the data a little further – of the total estimated greenhouse gas emissions from Agriculture (at only 10%), chicken production accounts for a meager 8% of that. Using some quick math, that equates to just .008% of greenhouse gas emissions from chickens. This estimate is also based on conventional chicken farming (or factory farming). Now keep in mind, chicken is the only lab grown meat that’s currently approved. If greenhouse gas emissions and climate change were really a driving force, it’s fair to assume that beef would be the primary funded and focused research area. Not that cattle are the nemesis, as they most definitely sequester carbon when managed regeneratively, it’s just that oftentimes they are wrongfully villainized due to their ruminant anatomy which results in a fair amount of burping and tooting. And a byproduct of those burps and toots is the greenhouse gas methane. I mean, how would you like being villainized because you gotta toot sometimes?
The elephant in the room when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions and “saving the planet” with lab grown meat, is the copious amount of emissions that enter the atmosphere from the facilities that cultivate the meat. Remember how agriculture contributes to 10% of greenhouse gas emissions? ‘Industry’ is double that at 23%, which is the process of manufacturing raw products into materials. To keep it simple, the three greenhouse gasses primarily discussed are carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. While some gasses are more potent than others (with methane and nitrous oxide being more potent than carbon dioxide), they leave the atmosphere in a shorter amount of time. For example, methane takes about 12 years, while carbon dioxide, the primary gas released which accounts for over 76% of total greenhouse gasses, lasts for centuries. This leaves us wondering how much carbon dioxide it will take to produce lab grown meat?
Unless production methods pivot from the pharma approach, lab grown meat has the potential to be worse for the environment than its conventionally farmed counterpart. This is due to all the resources used to make the end product, which ultimately emits carbon dioxide. When it comes to the emissions resulting from lab grown chicken, we aren’t talking the same amount or just a little more than conventional chicken – in 2019, Marco Springmann, a Senior Environmentalist Researcher from Oxford declared that the carbon footprint of lab grown meat is five times higher than conventional chicken. Five times.
Pitch #3 – The Solution to Feeding the Growing Population
With the world’s population projected to reach approximately 10 billion in 30 years (for perspective it’s about 7.888 billion now), scientists are working to use genetic technologies to address food security problems. The Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates the global demand for meat is expected to rise 73 percent by 2050. Globally, more than 150 companies are working to develop cell-cultivated meat, not only chicken – but pork, lamb, fish, and beef, which scientists say has the biggest impact on the environment. This argument is firmly rooted in the idea that we’re running out of natural resources, like land and water, and that the way we’re currently producing meat will drive us into an overdeveloped, barren landscape. Most experts say we can feed the 10 billion, just not in a way that is necessarily environmentally sustainable.
Proponents of regenerative agriculture recognize the substantial issues present in conventional farming, but instead of taking to the lab, we see the potential in raising meat the ‘old fashioned’ way – working with nature, not against it. Regenerative farmers employ techniques that have been used for centuries, such as adaptive grazing (moving livestock periodically to allow grazing land to rest and recover), no-till methods for planting crops, filling fallow cropland with cover crops, and reducing or eliminating the amount of chemical fertilizers and pesticides used. Simply put, authentic stewards in the regenerative agriculture space take livestock out of confinement and buildings, and use the animals and their byproducts to improve the land, and their lives – as mother nature intended them to.
A harsh reality in the conversation on the future of meat, is the fact that third-world countries won’t be able to adapt to the suggestions of the environmental experts. Bill Gates, who we know is heavily invested in the synthetic and alternative meat sector, said he doesn’t think the poorest 80 countries in the world would be eating synthetic beef in the future, but he does think “all rich countries should move to 100 percent synthetic beef.”
Colin Woodall, CEO of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, pushed back on Gates' comments, saying:
"the reality of fake meat is far different from the utopian fantasy he is selling." He argued that in the United States, “economic disparity poses significant barriers to the widespread adoption of synthetic meat. Limiting options or enforcing expensive alternatives, echoes Gates' elitist thinking."
In order for lab grown meat companies to be able to make a significant contribution to feeding the global population, they will need to be able to scale economically, and offer their products at a competitive price compared to factory farmed meats. Lab grown meats have to be kept in a pharmaceutical grade (greater than food grade) very sterile environment, and they require a very expensive facility compared to the amount of lab grown meat it can produce. A single spec of bacteria can kill an entire batch of lab grown meat, as these cells growing do not have immune systems. We’ve seen nationwide disruptions over the past several years in the conventional meat space due to the concentration of the meatpacking industry. With lab grown meats having such little room for error with it comes biosecurity – is it really a dependable solution to feeding the growing population?
Part 1 Sources: NBCNews.com, CNN.com, NBCNews.com, NYTimes.com, NBCNews.com, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, UpsideFoods.com, GoodMeat.co, FoodRepublic.com, EPA.gov, ThePoultrySite.com, unep.org, c2es.org, qz.com, globalpolicy.org, MeatPoultry.com, News.WSU.edu, APNews.com, unep.org, noble.org, BeefCentral.com, EvieMagazine.com, TechnologyReview.com, TheCounter.com