Lab Grown Meat: Science Fiction or Viable Solution?

By Michelle Wheater


“We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing”

-Winston Churchill

Artwork by Hannah Kershaw

One of the biggest dietary debates these days is whether to eat meat or not. With the increasing number of vegetarians and vegans around the world, some instead are embracing their inner carnivore. A wealth of research has been published surrounding many different aspects of the issue, and the media has recently latched onto one possibility being explored: lab grown meat. This could offer a compromise between those who don’t eat meat and those who insist on it. A paper published in the Journal of Integrative Agriculture titled “In vitro meat production: Challenges and benefits over conventional meat production,” explores the many aspects and viability of lab grown meat as an alternative to traditional farmed meat.


In vitro meat production involves taking stem cells from a live animal and growing them in a bioreactor. A bioreactor is a system that allows for the growth of the stem cells on a liquid medium in an environment analogous to the internal environment of the animal. The cells are harvested in such a way that doesn’t harm the animal, and growing the cells in a medium containing mushroom extract rather than serum from animal blood can also reduce the harm to animals to nearly zero (Bhat et al., 2015).


The growth of the cells can either be organized on a scaffold or self organized as the cells differentiate. A scaffold allows for the cells to grow into long tubes and develop into tissue that can be used like ground meats (Bhat et al., 2015). Self-organizing methods would be the way to produce “highly-structured, unprocessed meat faces”, like steaks and chicken breast, but the cells must be prompted with different environmental factors to achieve this (Bhat et al., 2015). Scientists are already using both of these methods to grow small cultures of “meat” from many different animals species.


Because the bioreactors are highly controlled environments, “in vitro meat can be engineered to be healthier and functional by manipulating the composition of the culture medium, the fat content and fatty acid composition of the cultured meat” (Bhat et al., 2015). The meat produced can have a specific fat content and nutrient make up. Unhealthy saturated fats present in animal tissue can be switched out for healthy omega-3 fats. Additionally, extra vitamins can be added to the meat to increase its healthfulness (Bhat et al., 2015). The risk for foodborne illness is also greatly reduced because of the controlled environment. There are few opportunities for bacterial contamination and good lab practices can virtually eliminate the risk.


Bioreactors have the potential to be way more efficient than traditional farming. Compared to traditional farming, lab grown meat production could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by “90% and reduce use of land and water resources for raising meat by up to 80%” (Bhat et al., 2015). Bioreactors will take significantly less space to produce the same amount of meat. The former agricultural land can be used for other activities. The land that has been deforested for cattle production can be reforested to help combat climate change. The bioreactors can also be moved closer to high population areas to reduce transportation emissions. Food deserts, places where fresh food is not accessible, can also be combated because bioreactors more easily be moved to these areas. The mobility of bioreactors can be taken advantage of in the technological future for space travel and colonization.


In vitro meat production still requires a lot of research to make the process sustainable and able to support all consumer needs. Currently a pound of lab grown meat costs $50,000 to make (Bhat et al., 2015). The current cost can be attributed to the process’s relative newness and the lack of private funding— the economics of large scale production would drop the price of production if there was consumer demand for it. Furthermore, public acceptance is also a barrier. The in vitro meat currently being grown does not have the exact look of natural meat. This can be enhanced but it still highlights the unnaturalness of the meat, which can be a sticking point for gaining public acceptance. However, some might argue that in vitro meat increases our dependency on technology, further alienating ourselves from nature and that that will have negative side effects (Bhat et al., 2015).


Overall, in vitro meat production is a solid possible solution to ending the moral debate over meat eating. Many vegetarians and vegans refrain from eating meat because of the harm is causes to animals and/or the negative effects factory farming has on the environment. Lab grown meat negates both of these concerns, and offers other benefits. But that doesn’t mean all those who refrain from eating traditional meat will eat lab grown meat. The only way to really know how the general population will respond to in vitro meat is to make it widely available. To do this more research and development— and the funding to support it— is needed to make the process not just a possibility, but a reality.


References:


Bhat, Z. F., Kumar, S., & Fayaz, H. (2015). In vitro meat production: Challenges and benefits over conventional meat production. Journal of Integrative Agriculture, 14(2), 241-248.

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