Is the Hype Surrounding Lab-Grown Meat Justified?

lab grown meat

Lab-grown meat is being heralded as a viable solution – the solution we desperately need – to the ecologically destructive effects of animal agriculture. Animal agriculture is responsible for at least 16.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which is more than that caused by all transportation combined. In addition, it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, whereas it only takes 147 gallons to produce one pound of corn. So as we can see, raising livestock for meat is extremely detrimental to the environment, and involves a huge amount of resources compared to growing grains.

By 2050, there will be two million more people on the planet, who, like the population today, will be demanding cheap meat, eggs, and dairy. Given the massive environmental threats posed by animal agriculture, the situation will only get worse as the global population increases. So what can be done?

Worldwide, less than 1% of the population is vegan, so it’s unlikely that we’ll see this increase by a significant percentage by 2050. On the other hand, China’s plan to cut meat consumption by 50% has been welcomed by climate campaigners. China consumes 28% of the world’s meat, so the environmental impact of this measure will be positive. However, it could be risky to keep our fingers crossed and hope for worldwide adoption of these measures. But technology may have the answer for this critical issue, letting us have our cake and eat it.

In August 2013, Dutch scientists produced the world’s first lab-grown burger, and since then big strides have been made. Singapore has now approved the sale of lab-grown meat: lab-grown chicken meat from the California startup Eat Just.

Hanna Tuomisto of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, who led a 2011 study on the environmental impact of lab-grown meat, found the following: “Cultured meat could potentially be produced with up to 96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 45% less energy, 99% lower land use, and 96% lower water use than conventional meat.”

Then there are the potential human health benefits of lab-grown meat. We know that the use of antibiotics in meat production is a huge danger to human health, as this can promote antibiotic resistance (with some experts predicting that this will be responsible for 10 million deaths every year by 2050, surpassing the death toll of cancer and making it the leading cause of mortality worldwide). But Professor Mark Post, who has been leading the Dutch team behind lab-grown, says they do not use antibiotics in their products because the sterile lab process does not require them. There is, however, still work to be done, as lab-grown meat doesn’t taste identical to conventional meat, but it’s supposedly close.

With lab-grown meat tasting the same as normal meat to some tasters (or at least nearly identical), and given the impressive environmental benefits of the meat just outlined, you would be forgiven for thinking that the hype surrounding lab-grown meat is justified. However, one of the barriers to making lab-grown meat the norm is its cost.

The price of lab-grown meat has significantly dropped since its invention. In fact, the price has dropped 30,000 times in less than four years (between 2013 and 2017). In 2013, it cost around $325,000 to make a lab-grown burger. In 2017, the cost was $11.

However, as impressive as this price drop is, lab-grown meat is still way more expensive than regular ground beef. In 2019, it was estimated a lab-grown burger patty would cost $10 by 2021. Meanwhile, in the US, you can get a burger for $1 from McDonald’s. The company Future Meat has stated it can produce four ounces of cultured chicken breast for $3.90 (making it more affordable than lab-grown beef); however, farmed chicken breast still costs 80% less than this.

Regardless of the environmental benefits incurred by paying more for lab-grown meat, most people will still go for the cheapest option; it can be difficult to keep in mind the long-term consequences of choosing unsustainable meat over sustainable alternatives.

Also, not everyone will be able to afford the lab-grown burger. Those on low incomes with families may not be able to afford the more sustainable option, whatever the long-term benefits may be. So while those in the middle or upper class who are concerned about the environment may happily pay the price of lab-grown meat, its price may still put many people off.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that beef is only as cheap as it is because of the immense power and influence of animal agribusiness. In economics, ‘negative externalities’ are the costs suffered by a third party as a result of a transaction between producer and consumer. In the case of meat, the negative externalities include damage to soil, airborne pesticides, pollution to ecosystems, health risks (including antibiotic resistance), zoonotic diseases (including influenza), cancer, deforestation, and climate change.

The meat industry imposes substantial negative externalities on society. David Simon, the author of Meatonomics, highlights that, in the US alone, the environmental external costs of animal food production are about $37bn. But animal agribusiness does not pay for these costs. Society does. If the industry had to pay for these costs, then the true price of a Big Mac would be $12, which is slightly more expensive than its lab-grown counterpart.

Meat is cheap because governments heavily subsidise meat and dairy. In addition, the meat industry has been successful in lobbying against both health and environmental regulations that would drive up costs. In light of this information, the price of lab-grown meat may need to drop significantly before it becomes an appealing alternative – or the price of meat needs to be raised (e.g. by taxing meat or removing its subsidies), taking into account its negative externalities, which would make alternatives more attractive.

Aleph Farms – an Israeli cultured meat startup backed by food and retail giants Cargill, Migros, and the Strauss Group – believes its lab-grown meat products will achieve cost parity with conventional meat quicker than plant-based meat when it is operating at full-scale production. One criticism of scaling up lab-grown meat production, nonetheless, is that this could actually prove worse for the environment in the long-term compared to normal meat production, owing to the CO2 emitted by the factories. Indeed, as I underlined in an article on sustainable diets, if lab-grown meat production relies on fossil fuels, then a diet including the regular consumption of such meat won’t be sustainable. In response to this concern, Aleph Farms claims it is the only company in this industry committed to achieving carbon-neutral production by 2025. Aleph Farms is hoping to bring its products to market in 2022. Meanwhile, Mosa Meat, which created the first lab-grown burger back in 2013, aims to get its cultured burgers on the market in Europe by 2022 as well.

If cultured meat companies scale up production while also committing to sustainable energy generation, then the hype surrounding lab-grown meat could be justified. But there are still other challenges involved (although perhaps relatively minor when compared to issues related to cost and energy). First, people need to get over the ‘ick’ factor of eating meat that was grown in a lab. Many people who eat meat currently won’t necessarily get on board with the lab-grown variety. Public perceptions can and do change (the media and growing acceptance of lab-grown meat will drive such change), but this process can take some time. How much time exactly is hard to say. Nor is it clear how likely it is that lab-grown meat will become the norm. If plant-based meat alternatives achieved parity of cost with lab-grown meat and tasted nearly identical, would people prefer the former (since this alternative is already welcomed by many meat-eaters)?

Research has indicated that plant-based meat substitutes are among the most accepted alternative proteins, with people less willing to accept cultured meat. People would rather eat a plant-based burger over a lab-grown one. The least accepted alternative form of protein is insect-based food (a topic I have also written about). The barriers or motives to accepting cultured meat (some of which are similar to those associated with plant-based meat) include taste, environment, perceived appeal, safety, distrust, food neophobia (being afraid of trying new foods), and disgust. Despite this, a study published in PLOS ONE found that when cultured meat is framed positively and people have favourable tasting experiences, acceptance of it is potentially high, and people were willing to pay a premium price for it based on its perceived benefits (as seems to be the case with plant-based meat substitutes as well).

(Here it should be noted that regardless of how many meat-eaters would make the switch, lab-grown meat will still be an easy replacement for pet food. And this would make an impactful difference, given that if cats and dogs made up their own country, they would rank fifth in terms of meat consumption.)

Another barrier to normalising the consumption of lab-grown meat would be the ethical concerns involved. To create lab-grown meat, it will be required to extract cells from a small number of living non-human animals (these starter cells are then grown into masses of cells). It may not always be necessary to use living, donor animals, however, as it is possible to create ‘immortal cell lines’; these are populations of cells that – due to spontaneous mutations – can multiply indefinitely, removing the necessity to keep extracting primary cells from an animal.

Currently, certain steps of the process depend on the killing of non-human animals, too, although alternatives are being sought out. And even if no new animals are needed to be killed to produce certain types of meat, animals may still be bred, confined, used, and killed in the process of creating new kinds of meat, in the search for a better product. Many ethical vegans and vegetarians would likely not feel it is morally justified to consume cultured meat for these reasons since it involves the exploitation and unnecessary killing of non-human animals. However, cultured meat is not really targeted at vegans and vegetarians in the first place but meat-eaters and flexitarians.

Even if ethical vegans and animal rights advocates oppose lab-grown animal products, such people represent such a small percentage of the overall population that their opposition is not likely to affect the market. Moreover, some ethical vegans – those who are committed to reducing animal suffering as much as possible – may not in principle be against the growth of a lab-grown animal products market, if the alternative is for people to continue sponsoring factory farming (the suffering involved in lab-grown meat production will be palpably lesser in both kind and degree compared to that endured by livestock). That’s not to say these ethical vegans would personally feel comfortable buying or consuming lab-grown animal products, of course.

The ethical barrier to normalising lab-grown animal products will only be substantial if two things are simultaneously true: production will always require the exploitation of sentient non-human animals and a significant portion of the population is morally opposed to such exploitation, regardless of the amount of suffering it will prevent (due to making conventional animal products redundant). Ethical vegans may optimistically think that, at some point in the future, it will be normal to view the exploitation of sentient non-human animals as unacceptable, just as we would collectively disapprove of treating humans in the same way. Nonetheless, speciesism (discrimination or unjustified treatment based on species membership alone) may be hard to overcome. I think it is fair to say that lab-grown meat, which continues to rely on animal exploitation, will be a thriving market before animal rights abolitionism achieves a similar level of popularity.

Based on this discussion, I believe it is too early to say if the hype surrounding lab-grown meat is warranted. The environmental benefits marketed by companies in the industry are impressive but they have to be contextualised – a global lab-grown meat diet won’t be sustainable if fossil fuels are relied upon. In addition, we will have to wait and see if and when parity of cost can be achieved. And finally, if you are committed to negative utilitarianism, suffering-focused ethics, or animal welfarism, then the prospect of lab-grown animal products replacing conventional animal products deserves the hype it is receiving. Animal rights advocates, on the other hand, will still take issue with the industry. Whether or not vegans should support lab-grown animal products is, therefore, an ongoing debate and one which will continue as the industry grows.

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