Meat of the Future

Lab-grown meat holds potential, but it has a long way to go before it becomes a meat alternative.

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The “meat of the future”: we’ve heard it in commercials for the Impossible Burger and seen it on labels for edible crickets. People have started to reject the traditional meat that humans have been eating for centuries, because of ethics or the environment, and are looking for alternatives that will satisfy their meat cravings, give them the same vitamins and protein, and resemble real meat in presentation. An alternative that meets all of these criteria is rare, especially when it comes to taste, which results in most individuals finding it difficult to give up meat. Recently, however, some companies have claimed to find the perfect solution to the growing problem of livestock production without compromising meat flavor: lab-grown meat.

Lab-grown meat involves the extraction of cells from a cow, chicken, or pig and growing those cells in a laboratory until they become readily consumable animal flesh. Since this technique doesn’t result in the death of the particular animal, it has been promoted as meat without slaughter. But the seemingly benign phrase “without slaughter” is not what it seems. The process uses fetal bovine serum, collected from fetuses of slaughtered, pregnant cows. The serum is then extracted through cardiac puncture, during which a needle pierces through a fetus’s heart.

This procedure raises the ethical questions of whether fetuses are living and whether they should be considered separate entities. “I think that the slaughter of pregnant animals is even less humane than the slaughter of non-pregnant animals,” junior Anna Kathawala remarked in an e-mail interview. “If there were a way to produce [lab-grown meat] without the use of the fetal serum, I might be inclined to change my mind, but I would have to do more research.”

Lab-grown meat would also have mixed impacts on the environment. On one hand, it creates the exact cuts of meat desired, cutting down on water, food, and land waste. However, when it comes to greenhouse gases, which are arguably the bulk of the problem, lab-grown meat can do more harm than good. Though livestock produces methane, a notorious greenhouse gas, lab-grown meat produces carbon dioxide, which stays in the atmosphere for a longer period of time. Freshman Ivan Gontchar acknowledged the danger of diving into the production of lab-grown meat. “We already have methane problems from producing livestock, so before we introduce this, [...] its [environmental issues] should be solved,” he said.

Kathawala also mentioned how the solution to excessive agricultural methane production may not be in lab-grown meat. “If we made the switch and started feeding cows the proper, natural diet, and stopped keeping them in such terrible conditions, cows actually produce a very, very small quantity of methane, which would make them overall a better food source,” she said.

Realistically, lab-grown meat is also quite expensive, as a single batch of lab-grown chicken nuggets can cost up to $50. “Whoever’s making this would have to find a way to reduce the cost because some people would buy it, but the majority wouldn’t be willing to pay,” freshman Benjamin Rudinski said. There seems to be hope, as many startups are diving into this new industry with baseline lower prices. However, factories that grow artificial meat are expensive to build and maintain and not only produce less meat, but are also generally in less demand than slaughterhouses.

Lab-grown meat will also need to compete with plant-based meat as an alternative. With many consumers already open to plant-based meat, it might be difficult to convince people to purchase the more expensive and less environmentally friendly option of lab-grown over plant-based. “Plant-based meat tastes really good, and it’s very environmentally friendly. I don’t think there [are] any disadvantages it has that lab-based meat doesn’t have,” freshman Astrid Harrington stated. Harrington plans to be a vegetarian when she becomes an adult and does not foresee herself buying lab-grown meat so long as it involves slaughter. “It would be the same as normal meat,” she said.

Gontchar, however, recognizes the limits plant-based meat has on satisfying a craving for meat and brings into perspective the potential lab-grown meat has in terms of taste. “Plant-based meat isn’t identical to regular meat, so many of the people who like regular meat would be a lot more inclined to buy lab-based meat if it actually tasted like regular meat,” he said. Gontchar doesn’t see himself as a vegan or vegetarian in the future but would consider lab-grown meat as an alternative to traditional options. “Meat is a big part of culture, so I don’t think I’ll separate from it,” he said. Rudinski added on with his experience as a pescatarian. Though a book on calf cruelty convinced him to temporarily stop eating meat, his liking for it overpowered his initial choice after a few months.

Both Rudinski and Harrington share similar experiences with Gontchar in how culture impacts meat consumption. Harrington eats meat to respect her mother’s cooking, and Rudinski exclusively ate meat on holidays when he first started to make exceptions to his pescetarianism, which eventually led to him eating meat altogether. If lab-grown meat could become ethically, economically, and environmentally sustainable, it could be consumed by dedicated vegans and meat-eaters alike, unlike plant-based or regular meat. The reality is that without extraordinary advancement in the industry, most consumers will most likely leave lab-grown meat on the shelf.