Lab-grown meat: it’s better for the planet but will anyone eat it?

Lab-grown meat could help reduce the environmental footprint of intensive farming. But will it ever appeal to vegetarians and eco-conscious consumers? 

Before the end of the year, Dutch scientists are promising a high-profile debut for a burger made from meat grown not on a farm but in their laboratory.

Synthetic or lab-grown meat involves taking a small amount of cells from a living animal and growing it into lumps of muscle tissue in the lab, which can then, in theory, be eaten as meat for human consumption.

As well as saving an animal, lab-grown meat also reduces the negative environmental impact of modern-day intensive meat production, including land use, animal feed and greenhouse gas emissions. In contrast to vegetarian, non-animal based alternatives to meat like soya, tofu, Quorn or other vegetable proteins, artificial meat has a much higher protein content as well as tasting and having a more similar texture to slaughtered animal meat.

The technology behind lab-grown meat has been around since the late 1990s, but producing an affordable and tasty meat product has proved elusive. But two different researchers in the US and Europe are now confident they are close to a breakthrough.

Backed with US$400,000 (2.5 million yuan) of funding from an anonymous donor, professor Mark Post of Maastricht University says he will be holding a public tasting session of his lab-grown burger in the next few months.

However, he admits that his is only a demonstration of the potential of lab-meat, and that he is not yet close to producing a cost-effective version.

Another researcher, Hungarian-born Gabor Forgacs from the University of Missouri, appears closer after becoming the first scientist in the US to publicly eat lab-grown meat at a conference last year.

He was recently named by animal rights group PETA as the most likely winner of its US$1 million prize for the first mass-produced artificial chicken that is indistinguishable from real chicken meat.

Forgacs previously worked on creating tissue and organs for humans before realising the same technology could be used to engineer meat. He has now started a company, Modern Meadows, to develop his commercial lab-grown meat, with the help of funding from the US Department of Agriculture.“What we’re going to make is sort of a consumerable biomaterial it’s going to be made of animal cells and have the character, texture of a certain type of meat,” says Forgacs.

“It may not necessarily end up being the hamburger that we regularly eat but it can be an ingredient to many things. Take the analogy of flour. You don’t eat flour, it’s not very tasty but you eat a zillion products that contain flour and are very yummy so whether this is going to be the major application of our product I don’t know but this is definitely something I envisage it leading to.”

Lab-grown meat better for the planet

Both Professor Post and Dr Forgacs say they are motivated by the need to reduce the environmental impact of meat production. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization has estimated that 18% of global greenhouse-gas emissions are accounted for by the livestock sector.

In contrast, research published last year from the University of Oxford estimated that lab-grown meat produces 78-96% lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventionally produced meat within the EU. It also uses 99% less land and 82-96% less water.

"The rules of the game of meat production are not the same as they were 100 years ago," says Forgacs. "It’s not sustainable. We are destroying this planet with intensive meat production. Seventy percent of arable land today is one way or another connected to animals through grazing animals or growing food for them. We’re running out of it."

Forgacs admits that initially at least, his lab-grown meat is likely to be an expensive niche product, costing something similar to Kobe beef (US$125 to US$395 a kilo).

"This product isn’t going to be for the masses at the beginning, it’s going to be for eco-conscious people and people who don’t eat meat for ethical reasons," he says.

Lab-grown meat evokes food safety fears

However, social scientists say it is still far from certain whether or not consumers will accept and eat it. A consumer worried about meat’s environmental cost might also be wary of lab-manipulated food. Forgacs and Post are both conscious of the bad publicity and scepticism that has surrounded genetically modified food.

“The people making in-vitro meat, particularly those working in the EU, are very aware of having it associated with genetic modification,” explains Neil Stephens, a sociologist from Cardiff University who has been studying the emergence of lab-grown meat. “It would be possible to use GM in making in-vitro meat but scientists do not want to do that or associate their product with GM.”

Beyond the GM-type food safety fears, there is still widespread disagreement among scientists about how to classify lab-grown meat. Forgacs, for one, says the term lab-grown meat “turns people off right away.”

“Some want it to be meat, and recognised like any other meat,” says Stephens. “Others think it is better to be seen as a new type of meat and as such OK to taste or look different. Then there is a minority who feel it is a meat substitute, very meat-like but not meat.”

“I would argue that we are still at a point at which the definition or categorisation of in vitro [lab-grown] meat – what it is – remains unclear. The best description of it is an ‘as-yet undefined ontological object’.”

Stephens says this and many other unanswered questions about consumer acceptance will need to be resolved before lab-grown meat ever reaches our supermarket shopping trolleys.

“If it ever is a marketable product it will still be a small one. It is not going to be plumped on our supermarket shelves. It will initially have limited availability so will have time to gain acceptability,” says Stephens.

Tom Levitt is managing editor at chinadialogue.

Homepage image by Michael Hughes