Lab-Grown Meat Is the “Clean” Food the World Needs. So, What’s the Beef?

Published On August 27, 2021
In ESG Consulting, Blog Archives

In the early 1900s, the world’s population was estimated to be around 1.7 billion. In only the next 60 years, the global population almost doubled, reaching just short of 3 billion (Worldometer). 

Today? 

According to the United Nations, the current world population is estimated to be 7.9 billion. In the last 60 years, we have more than doubled. 

But we haven’t just increased in number. In 1913, the average life expectancy was 34. In the 1970s, it was 60. And today, it’s 71 (Gates Notes). We are not just more, but we are also living more. 

Meat production accounts for 15% of global greenhouse emissions

In the last 100 years, human lives have improved beyond the imagination of someone who lived even 250 years ago. And the improvement must be attributed to the flourishing of modern science and reason. 

Technology is a broad term, but historians consider sanitation and vaccines to be the two biggest reasons for the extraordinary transformation. Together, the two dramatically decreased the occurrence of deaths and diseases and extended the human lifespan. (Two things: First, the improvement says nothing of human happiness. Are we happier now than when we were 50 years ago? It’s hard to say. Second, while human lives have certainly improved, the improvement has been dreadfully uneven.) 

By now, it should be easy to see where this is headed. As the population has mushroomed, so has our usage of Earth’s resources. Today’s scale of agriculture and poultry, for example, to meet the ever-increasing demand is incredible.  

But so are its effects on the environment. 

‘The worst mistake in the history of the human race’

Agriculture accounts for nearly one-third of the total greenhouse emissions we produce (UN). Besides simply taking up land, a large chunk of it is contributed by meat production, which accounts for 15% of the emissions (UN). 

As the population has mushroomed, so has our usage of Earth's resources
As the population has mushroomed, so has our usage of Earth’s resources.

Take chicken, for example. In 1961, we raised one chicken for about 400 people (Carnegie Museum of Natural History). By 2016, we were raising 8 chickens for about one person. One must read that twice, slowly, to understand how truly mind-boggling the fact is. Meat consumption, in fact, (all kinds of meat — pork, etc. included) has since tripled. Think of the land, food, and chemicals to raise them. 

But it’s not just for its environmental effects that agriculture is labeled as the worst mistake in the history of the human race. It’s also outrageously immoral. More than 60 billion animals are slaughtered annually. More than 130 million chickens are slaughtered every day.  

The suffering will only increase, as does the population and its demand for meat (currently estimated to increase by 70% by 2025, according to WRI). But we, too, will suffer, as the climate catastrophe worsens, leading to record-shattering heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, floods, and other extreme events.  

In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its sixth report, warned that climate change would be irreversible, and its effects increasingly more intense — unless we take active and stringent measures in the next decade. 

What is lab-grown/cultured meat

If we can have clean energy, why can’t we have clean meat? Actually, we do. 

What is lab-grown/cultured meat? 

As the name suggests, lab-grown or cultured meat is meat that is indistinguishable from real meat, right down to the cellular level. Except that it is synthesized in a lab. What that means is, cultured meat is meat that is produced without, or with minimum animal cruelty. 

How?  

Well, by providing animal stem cells in a bioreactor with an optimal growth environment, where they can grow into a muscle, with tissues and fat cells, as they do naturally. 

The stem cells are obtained from an alive or recently dead animal. A small muscle or fat tissue sample is collected, and the cells are isolated from it by chemical means. Then, they are cultured, placed in a bioreactor — a temperature-controlled, oxygen-rich environment filled with the right nutrients, like sugars, salts, and vitamins, where the cells can multiply and develop into a muscle as they do in the animal’s body. 

The technology isn’t new: lab-grown tissues, for medical purposes, have been in use for decades. But interest in it has sharply risen in the last few years. In 2017, worldwide, only around a dozen startups constituted the industry. Today, there are more than 100, with investments reaching $3 billion, last year (Bloomberg). 

Why? 

Perhaps because it’s becoming increasingly clear that sustainability is the future. It has to be if we want to achieve the targets set by the Paris Agreement. And it probably will be, as reported by Kearney, the US-based consultancy firm, according to which, of all the meat globally consumed by 2040, 35% would be cultured. 

Agriculture is the worst mistake in the history of the human race
Agriculture is labeled as the worst mistake in the history of the human race.

There’s just one problem. At least for now. 

The cost of doing good

What we today seek is a true, “clean” alternative, identical in nourishment as well as taste. So far, we are nowhere near it. 

A muscle is an extraordinarily complex and intricate network of fiber, nerves, fat cells, and connective tissue. Yes, we have made astounding strides in biotechnology, but even the most cutting-edge tools in stem cell research cannot help us simulate a muscle’s growth. Perhaps in a decade or so. 

What startups are growing today is not whole tissue, but very thin slices, which are put together to form minced meat products, like nuggets and patties. 

But while taste is subjective, everyone would agree that the prices are exorbitant.  

Eat Just Inc., for example, recently debuted its cultured chicken dishes in select restaurants. The “breakthrough” nuggets, even after heavy discounting, were priced at around $17 (CNBC). Would you pay $17 for a few nuggets? Indeed, Meatable, an industry heavyweight, is in the process of developing a true alternative, whole tissue and all. The price? An estimated $10,000 per pound (TechCrunch). 

The figure seems ridiculous. It is, indeed, by all standards. But should we be surprised? Didn’t electric vehicles cost a fortune? They still do. Remember when computers were a luxury? The logic is quite simple: as production scales, prices plummet. 

Lab-grown meat climate impact

That’s certainly a possibility. Especially, when the industry is backed by giants like Bill Gates and Sergey Brin. Venture capital has been pouring in lately. Eat Just Inc., based in San Francisco, recently raised $200 million (CNBC). Aleph Farms, based in Israel, raised $105 million (Food Business News). Meatable and Mosa Meat, both based in the Netherlands, raised $47 million (Meatable) and $85 million (Mosa Meat), respectively. 

And even if the prices are brought down, but not down enough, the benefits seem to outweigh the cost. 

A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Science and Technology reported that producing cultured meat, in comparison “to conventionally produced European meat,” would consume 40% less energy, 90% less water, and 99% less land. 

Animal slaughter would cease.  

Cultured meat would also be free of bacterial contamination like E. coli, borne of fecal matter. Diseases like swine flu would decline.  

While natural beef takes a year or two to hit the market, cultured meat takes mere weeks. Additionally, with labs being closer to the cities, shipping costs would decline. 

Finally, producers of cultured meat could control what goes into it. We, for example, could adjust its cholesterol and saturated fat content. Perhaps we could replace it with good fats, like omega-3 and polyunsaturated fats. 

What is lab-grown/cultured meat?

Even if the entire population cannot make the transition, the richest certainly should. At least that’s what Bill Gates advocates. And it does make sense.  

First, rich countries have been found to consume meat in proportions that are unhealthy for them as well as the environment (BBC). Second, at least 1 billion people suffer from protein deficiency (Cornell Alliance for Science). In rich countries, the demand can be easily met by ramping up the production of cultured meat — which leaves ample natural meat for the others. 

What’s in a name?

Still, we are left with two more problems. 

First, there still are several unknowns to grapple with. Yes, lab-grown meat itself is clean, but what about the processes and materials involved in its production? 

Second, how will we market it? 

Even if the FDA approves a product this year for commercial use, marketing would be some feat. Cultured, cellular, and lab-grown describe features of a comic book villain. Remember the backlash against synthetic crops? 

Eat Just Inc. didn’t debut its product as “lab meat”. Instead, it served it as Good Meat. See the difference? 

Having trouble knowing what’s green and what’s greenwashed? Get insights. Not illusions.Contact us today. 

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Akash Peshin
Akash Peshin
About the Author

Akash is a business writer and editor who has written for a range of industries including media & entertainment, FMCG, technology, BFSI, and healthcare.

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