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Kate Geagan

Is It Time to Embrace Lab-Grown Meat?

Touted as healthy, humane and sustainable, protein grown in a petri dish is getting closer to the table.

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When we think of following a more sustainable lifestyle, we typically imagine shopping carts brimming with minimally processed, whole foods, chock full of fruits and veggies. To be sure, a steady stream of science urges us that swapping plant proteins for animal ones as well as choosing certified organic, high-welfare meat and dairy can bolster our health and reduce our impact on the planet.

But there’s a revolution brewing that offers a radical new path for eaters hungry for alternative solutions to one of our biggest food challenges. It’s so new that even its name isn’t firmly established — it has been called at various turns clean meat, cell-based meat, lab-grown meat and more. In fact, it’s so new that governments around the world are scrambling to regulate it. And it’s coming to a table near you faster than you think.

What is lab-grown meat anyway?

While companies vary in exact details, broadly speaking “lab-grown meat” refers to a method of making animal protein that’s far from a feedlot: In this approach, stem cells collected from animal tissue are placed in a medium meant to mimic nature and support growth (including amino acids, vitamins, minerals and a proprietary blend, which may be plant or animal derived). The result? A finished product that packs all the mouthwatering flavor and texture of, say, a hamburger or a chicken breast, but with none of the ethical, environmental or public health problems that can plague conventional meat production. In other words, it tastes like real meat, but no animal was harmed for it. While questions remain about animal welfare, even PETA has been supportive of this approach.

While you are a few years from buying cell-based burgers at your favorite shopping spot (whether click or brick), a number of companies are making strides, including JUST, a California-based startup aiming to sell its cultured chicken nuggets and Wagyu beef in Asia later this year, while waiting on FDA and USDA approval, as well as Memphis Meats (backed by Tyson Foods) and SuperMeat, also developing products.

The case for (and against) cell-based animal protein

There are some potentially staggering positives to this new method: According to a Harvard Business School Case Study, 175 million quarter-pound burgers could be made using the cells of a single animal; by contrast, 440,000 cattle would be needed by today’s conventional farming. And while little data on carbon or water footprint have been formally published, early calculations suggest cultured meat could reduce the need for land and water by 90% and slash energy use by 70%. It’s also well understood that livestock is a top source of methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more powerful than carbon in warming the climate. While a growing number of people around the world face hunger and food insecurity, only 55% of the world’s crops are actually eaten by humans; 36% of the calories produced in agriculture are currently used for animal feed (with 9% for biodiesels). Radically shifting our mindset could potentially open up whole new swaths of calories for a growing population without clearing additional land.

Yet others wonder: Do we really need to be remaking meat? Or are we trading one set of challenges for another? Questions about price, safety, naturalness, as well as about sustainability benefits once these technologies are scaled linger: For example, a recent Friends of the Earth paper cautions that actual data on health outcomes and environmental benefits is scant and points out that many companies aren’t fully disclosing all of their ingredients or methods because they are considered confidential trade secrets. While many of these early companies are leading with sustainability claims, the report calls for independent, Third party verification of the full environmental impact (including ingredients, packaging and production facilities) before we will really have a clear picture of the real savings to our natural resources. A far safer approach, critics say, is to focus on certified regenerative, organic, high- welfare meat and dairy products (and to encourage people to eat less meat overall), instead of high-tech solutions.

One point all sides seem to agree on: More familiarity and greater comfort are keys to widespread consumer adoption. In a first of its kind survey, researchers from the University of Bath found that 30% of American, 59% of Chinese and 49% of Indian consumers say they are very likely to purchase cultured meat regularly as products come to market.

Lab grown meat infographic
Illustrations: Shutterstock 

How does cell-meat fit into a CE lifestyle?

It can be tricky to know simply by reading the label if a product meets all CE guidelines. In some cases, GMOs are used as part of the production process. For instance, genetically modified yeasts might be used to produce animal protein (i.e., “milk without the cow”), but the final protein itself is GMO-free. It’s this grey area that companies would be wisest to help eaters peel back and understand, giving them the choice to embrace or not. So read labels like a pro and call the company if you have unanswered questions. And most importantly, share your feedback with companies themselves (many founders I’ve met in this space are eager to hear from eaters and adjust course), as we are in a pivotal moment in creating what’s next for all of us.

Progressive Proteins

Cell-grown meat is just the start. Meet 3 other foods of the future that we have our eye on.

  1. Designer collagens and proteins: Through sustainable fermentation of plants, the company Geltor has created the protein collagen that’s vegan, non-GMO and halal, offering potential from skin care products to gelatin.
  2. Crafting dairy without the cow: Using microflora and fermentation techniques, Perfect Day Foods is able to make the very same dairy protein that cows create naturally.
  3. Cooking up chicken-free egg whites: Pioneering plantbased egg whites, Clara Foods has potential reach across every aisle of the grocery store, from baking products, packaged foods, supplements and more.