Cultured meat: the future of food

Sustainable Leaders | Global

By Laura Butula, Kingfisher Writer

Published April 26th, 2022

A sci-fi-like diet trend may be on the rise. Cell biologists and engineers are collaborating to produce cultured meat via cell engineering techniques. Though artificial, it may be the silver bullet for solving the environmental impacts associated with the livestock industry. A closer look into the laboratory process shows potential downsides for cultured meat.

Jackfruit, lentils, tofu, tempeh, chickpeas, seitan. You name it; it seems there is a never-ending list of plant-based meat alternatives that are becoming increasingly trendy. Now, however, the game is becoming even more pioneering.

Humans’ dietary reliance on meat dates back about two and a half million years ago when early humans started to hunt large animals for their meat and marrow. Although countless people internationally still crave a juicy steak or a burger, others have decided to take an alternative route and avoid meat altogether.

Meat alternatives can be produced without cattle ranching, a practice that relies on deforestation for pasture land. | Joelle Hernandez / Flickr

Interestingly, it is the recent scientific insights that have pushed many to stray away from these ancestral routines. A growing body of empirical evidence confirms that highly carnivorous diets are associated with multi-faceted complications, pushing researchers to scramble for solutions that aim to remedy the consequences of meat consumption.

Moreover, individuals around the world are switching to vegetarian or vegan diets due to the environmental, ethical and health concerns associated with conventional meat intake.

Concomitantly, the snowballing global population is accompanied by rising demand for meat products and increased production rates within the livestock industry. Therefore, the twin challenge of allocating sufficient quantities of nutritious food whilst minimising environmental impact persists.

‘Although countless people internationally still crave a juicy steak or burger, others have decided to take an alternative route and avoid meat altogether.’

As is now widely known, the livestock industry is linked to several environmental issues. For example, dangerously high rates of deforestation and land-use change subsist, as pasture areas require substantial space that is一seemingly一only obtainable if forests and habitats are destroyed.

Furthermore, land-use change, beef production and beef exports are primary sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The livestock industry contributes to approximately 15% of global anthropogenic GHG emissions. This includes three of the most potent emissions that advance the greenhouse effect: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O).

Intending to tackle these environmental issues and satisfy the pleas of the planet and health-conscious consumers, a new player has entered the dietary game and propagated over the last two decades: cultured meat. This new mealtime option is also known as ‘synthetic meat’, ‘cell-based meat’, ‘in vitro meat’, ‘lab-grown meat’ and ‘cultivated meat’.

Put simply, cultured meat is grown from animal embryonic stem cells or satellite cells by applying cell tissue engineering techniques. The process involves injecting local anaesthesia into a living animal and cautiously harvesting a small sample of muscle cells through biopsy. The cells are then placed into bioreactors, which provide an ideal environment for whole cells to convert biochemicals into products.

‘Put simply, cultured meat is grown from animal embryonic stem cells or satellite cells by applying cell tissue engineering techniques.’

Next, the cells are added to a rich nutrient bath, where they multiply and develop to ultimately produce real muscle tissue. This is transferred to ‘scaffoldings’一edible moulds typically made from cellulose and gelatin一that allow the attachment, differentiation and maturation of cells to ultimately shape the end meat product.

Cell biologists, chemists and engineers collaborate to imitate the appearance, smell, flavour, and texture of conventional meat in the small dimensions of a mould. It seems that what was once a sci-fi movie concept is now a reality. What was often neglected in these thrilling futuristic films, however, were the benefits associated with high-tech inventions一in this case, cultured meat.

Since synthetic meat is not yet marketed, this prototype image shows what it could potentially look like once it is packaged for sale. | Fabrice de Nola / Flickr

A key advantage of cultured meat is its low environmental impact when compared with conventionally manufactured meat. One study conducted in 2011 showed that synthetic meat involves roughly 99% less land use, 82% to 96% less water use, 78% to 96% less GHG emissions and 7% to 45% less energy use than traditional meat.

Another trump card put forward by the innovation of lab-grown meat is the question of ethics. Cultured meat aims to cease ruthless animal slaughter and the raising of countless animals in inhumane spaces.

Correspondingly, there is minimal chance of disease outbreaks in cultured meat一something typically correlated with the livestock industry. This is because lab-grown meat is kept under controlled and isolated conditions, with slim prospects of contamination. Therefore, it is likely that antibiotic usage for cultured meat will be relatively rare, reducing the risks of antibiotic discharge and resistance.

In addition to this, PhD candidate Andrew Stout argues that ‘once you are dealing with cells, the whole world opens up to you that is not open when you are dealing with whole animals.’ Accordingly, cultured meat may be supplemented by auxiliary nutrients, medicines and innovative flavours.

‘Once you are dealing with cells, the whole world opens up to you that is not open when you are dealing with whole animals.’

Indeed, there is increasing evidence that cultured meat is relatively more eco-friendly; however, its production and consumption also comes with some downsides.

For example, one study from 2019 demonstrated how cultured meat’s potentially low contribution to global warming could actually exceed that of conventional meat and the livestock industry, since CO2 associated with lab-grown meat has a longer-lasting atmospheric effect than methane (CH4). On the other hand, CH4 has roughly 80 times more warming power than CO2. These contradicting facts spotlight the need for further impact assessments and research.

Moreover, there is also some evidence that cultured meat is less ecological than poultry. Research from 2015 confirms that the global warming potential (2.3 kilograms CO2 equivalent), industrial energy use (26.6 megajoules), and eutrophication potential (6.4 grams phosphate (PO4) equivalent) of poultry is lower than that of lab-grown meat, which produces 7.5 kilograms CO2 equivalent, 106 megajoules and 7.9 grams PO4 equivalent, respectively.

The ‘true’ environmental impact of lab-grown meat also depends on the growth medium used. One study highlighted that cyanobacterial hydrolysate has significantly lower energy use, water use, land use and GHG emissions compared to soy hydrolysate when used as a growth medium.

The various types of growth mediums also call attention to animal welfare, underscoring the antithetical use of animal-derived serums like foetal bovine serum (FBS).

Some lab-grown meat can have a negative environmental impact depending on the growth medium used. | Ars Electronica / Flickr

Furthermore, while cultured meat is the obvious silver bullet to exaggerated animal slaughter, it too will require rearing animals for cell harvests. The question of how the ethics of this will be standardised, promoted and ensured globally remains.

Another point to make is that discussions regarding the Kosher or Halal status of cultured meat are bound to be complex and sensitive. As expected, there will indeed be legal implications surrounding the subject of lab-grown meat.

On top of that, the public perception of cultured meat is uncertain. The aforementioned alternative aims to attract potential consumers and promote ‘victimless’ and eco-friendly meat. A study revealed that levels of acceptance are higher when the word ‘cultured’ is used, rather than ‘artificial’ or ‘lab-grown’, and when less information is shared with customers. Essentially, many still think that such food is untrustworthy and unnatural.

‘A study revealed that levels of acceptance are higher when the word ‘cultured’ is used rather than ‘artificial’ or ‘lab grown’, and when less information is shared with customers.’

Clearly the production and consumption of cultured meat have pros and cons. It is undeniably crucial to monitor, track and improve any energy-intensive biological or technological functions associated with large-scale cultured meat production. To better protect the planet and nurture prevailing sentiment, the conflicting environmental impact and marketing of this dietary modernization must be evaluated.

Moreover, because much of the existing literature about cultured meat is sponsored by companies aiming to sell such products, it is important that independent studies are conducted in the future in order to explore the full range of environmental, socio-economic and political concerns associated with lab-grown meat.

Cultured meat may still be in the infancy stages of evolution, but there is undoubtedly a long road ahead. Enormous investments into research and development are needed to prove that what is currently said about lab-grown meat is accurate.

‘Enormous investments into research and development are needed to prove that what is currently said about lab-grown meat is accurate.’

While many studies have exemplified the benefits of cultured meat relative to conventional meat, it will only genuinely be considered sustainable if it is resource-efficient, economical and accessible. For the time being, let us remain cautiously optimistic.

Featured Image: Diverse Stock Photos| Flickr

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