In this episode, I dive into what lab grown meat is and whether it’s an eco-friendly and ethical alternative to the current animal agriculture industry.
The annual global meat market is worth $1.4tn. That. Is. Huge.
So, it’s really no wonder that lots of companies are trying to get a slice of that market. However, whilst traditional methods of farming and factory farming still very much reign supreme in terms of where the money’s at, one alternative that is sneaking its way into reality is lab grown meat.
The idea of lab grown meat may feel pretty freaky and a bit too sci-fi for you to want to eat it! However, the process of growing meat as opposed to rearing animals and killing them has the potential to be really beneficial, not only in regards to animal rights, but also to the planet and even our health.
Now, before we dive in, I feel like I should be very clear about the fact that I don’t eat meat. There are a whole host of reasons, be they ethical or environmental, that I made this switch and I talk more about them in episode 4 of season one. So I am coming at this from the perspective of someone who doesn’t support animal agriculture at this time. I’m trying to be open minded and really do want to dive into the pros and cons of this potentially revolutionary industry. But I want to put my kind of unavoidable biases out there from the get go.
It really is just a mind boggling thought that we could one day completely eradicate farming in favour of lab grown meat. But before we get into whether that’s a good thing or not, let’s talk about what growing meat actually looks like!
What is lab grown meat?
When you imagine lab grown meat, you might see animals in giant test tubes attached by man-made umbilical cords. There might be a slight sci-fi green tinge to the light. It probably feels very eerie and there’s faceless people in lab coats walking around. Or maybe that’s just me.
Either way though, growing meat is probably not as like something from a movie set in the future as you might think.
Here’s how it works: The process of growing meat starts when a cell is taken from an animal. This can come from biopsies (as in, a small amount of flesh is taken from an animal, but the animal is likely not harmed), from pieces of meat or even from the roots of feathers! These cells are then harvested in a lab, to create a culture. This culture is referred to as a cell line.
I know, it’s all getting very sciency but stick with me!
At The Guardian explain in their article on the topic, “Cell lines can either be based on primary cells – for example muscle or fat cells – or on stem cells. Stem cells have the advantage that with different nutrients, or genetic modifications, they are able to mature into any cell type. There is also no limit to how long stem-cell lines can live, so it is possible to use them indefinitely to produce a product.”
The meat cell culture that is produced at the end of this process doesn’t have bones and can be formed into things like sausages, or nuggets to create edible meat products.
Mind blowing, right?
But why would we want to do this? What would be the benefit if we started to sell lab grown meat?
The pros of lab grown meat
Well, there are actually a lot of potential benefits to growing meat, instead of continuing down the path of traditional animal agriculture.
For one, it almost completely eradicates the chances of animal cruelty within meat production. As we know, the meat industry is extremely cruel, especially if we’re talking about factory farming.
Companies want to get as much as they can from that $1.4tn pot that makes up the meat industry. I still get my head around that figure! But, anyway, in order to get as much profit as possible, they have to maximise output whilst minimising costs. So basically more meat with less money spent getting it.
That’s pretty much a recipe for cruelty and is the reason why factory farms are often so cramped, for example. The idea is that the more animals you can fit into a smaller space, the larger your profit since the smaller your expenses. Similarly, a lot of factory farming involves injecting animals with steroids, to again maximise meat production. This is common practice in the farming of chickens for meat, for example. By making their bodies out of proportion to their legs, life can be very uncomfortable for them.
And that’s just two examples of the types of cruelty that goes on in the factory farming industry. Really, I could do a whole episode listing them, but you get the idea.
By growing meat using animal cells you don’t actually have to kill an animal in order to eat meat. As long as cells are taken humanely and in a way that doesn’t impact the animal negatively, it’s a huge improvement in terms of cruelty. Whilst it’s not necessarily possible to argue that it’s completely cruelty-free if the company is taking a biopsy of an animal, there’s no denying that it’s faaaar better than factory farming. The animal survives and doesn’t have to live in horrible conditions in order to maximise profits. In fact, like I mentioned earlier, if stem cells are taken then there’s no limit to how long you can make use of them.
This means that it has the potential to be a very circular production system, as opposed to needing to regularly take biopsies.
On top of being a lot less cruel potentially, lab grown meat could have huge sustainability benefits. Take space, for example. Animal agriculture takes up a LOT of land. And in some cases this can mean the cutting down of forests, even rainforests, to clear space. This hugely disrupts the earth’s natural ecosystems and means that less greenhouse gases get taken out of the atmosphere, adding to our global warming problem.
On the other hand, according to The Daily Express, the land footprint of lab grown meat is 99% lower than that of traditional farming methods. It doesn’t require clearing land to house animals before they’re slaughtered and is therefore considerably more eco-friendly.
The meat is multi-layered in terms of why it’s so bad for the planet and, as well as having a huge land footprint, it’s a huge contributor to greenhouse gasses. According to Cowspiracy, “Animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation.” This is due to methane production in things like rice production to feed animals, soil fertilisation, manure management and, to put it not too sweetly, cow farts!
Obviously, lab grown meat doesn’t require these sorts of processes, making the carbon footprints of the final product considerably smaller.
Being able to make such a huge impact on the environment through what we eat usually requires huge habit shifts. It means removing entire food groups to become vegetarian or vegan. Sure, it’s totally worth it. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. On the other hand, lab grown meats don’t require any habit shifts. They’re purchased, cooked and eaten in the same way!
So, you get huge benefits for the planet, in a pretty easy way. I truly believe that technology that makes sustainable switches easier is one of the main keys to us saving the planet. Because the truth is a lot of us are stuck in our ways, even if we know what we’re doing isn’t ideal.
So yes, that’s one huge potential benefit to lab grown meat: How sustainable it is and how easy it is to slot it into everyday life. Small changes, huge impact.
Finally, lab grown meat could even be better for our health! A lot of food-borne diseases are transmitted between livestock and humans. This isn’t a problem with lab grown meat, or at least as far as we know currently. Plus, grown meat could be pretty easily supplemented with vitamins and minerals in a way that is not as easy or humane as in traditional farming.
Impressive stuff, right?
Although we’re not quite at the stage where lab grown meat could takeover normal meat, it’s interesting to understand how it could massively impact society and the earth if it did.
However, there are certainly some cons to the process of growing meat in a lab. Perhaps most notably, price! Growing meat is expensive and it’s this high cost that has so far been the main barrier to getting it to market. The average cost of producing a kilogram of lab-grown meat is now about €100 (Veg News). This is a huge drop from the cost just a few years ago, which was apparently €800. Plus, it’s set to drop even more and to be €10 per burger patty in the near future and even potentially lower than the cost of average meat.
But, as it stands, the large cost is a big barrier and a con that needs to be acknowledged.
Another potential downside is the loss of jobs. Like I’ve said, the meat industry is a big money maker which means it also employs a lot of people. It’s hard to imagine how this more streamlined process of growing meat could possibly hire the same volume of people across the world. Whilst I don’t think that this is necessarily a reason to STOP sustainable innovations, I do think it’s something that would need to be carefully considered and overcome, so as not to affect the economy or the financial stability of individuals. As much as a career in animal agriculture isn’t what I’d choose, we need to understand that a lot of the people involved in this industry aren’t necessarily there by choice but because it’s their only option.
If we dismantle the traditional meat industry as we know it, there needs to be some kind of help for these people.
Another potential con more on the ethical side of things is something that the group Clean Meat Hoax has suggested. The group is made up of 16 animal rights scholars and activists and they are suggesting that cultured meat is not acceptable ethically. This is because it positions animals as “desirable” and something for human consumption which a lot of vegans and even vegetarians would argue against.
However, it’s worth noting that groups including PETA has come out in favour of the tech since it could save so many lives.
I have to say that whilst I certainly don’t think that “clean meat” or lab grown meat is perfectly ethical, what is? I personally feel like it’s a huge improvement and a massive step in the right direction in terms of ethics, at least. Though I see where Clean Meat Hoax are coming from, I don’t agree with them on this one.
The final and perhaps most prominent con to lab grown meat is the ick factor! A lot of people will find the idea of growing food in a lab off-putting or even disgusting, since it’s something so new. As with everything in society, new tech is scary, especially when it’s hard to understand how exactly it works. And since not many of us are biologists, not many of us can understand the process in-depth! Myself included.
So, whilst lab grown meat may not be that physically different in terms of cooking and buying, it’s worth questioning whether large numbers of people will get on board with it. Or will they prefer what is widely considered as the more “natural” way of eating. Although, obviously factory farming isn’t exactly natural either.
It all comes down to the unknown being scary and people being, perhaps justifiably sceptical about what we put into our bodies!
Yep, the ick factor is a big problem and I think a barrier that is just as big as the price at the moment.
So, could lab grown meat be the solution to the ethical and environmental issues of the animal agriculture industry?
Honestly, I think yes. Whilst I’m certainly not over the ick factor myself yet, I also have an ick factor about eating meat in general so it’s difficult to know how tied together those two things are! I’m not sure whether I would personally eat cultured meat but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s a great option for those that regularly do eat meat. It’s much more eco-friendly and much more ethical, even if it’s not perfect.
If the price was accessible and we could ensure that not too many people would lose their jobs, I really think it’s a big step in the right direction. Because whilst I love a good bit of quorn mince, not everyone does.
I’d love to know what you think though. Send me a message to @bethanypaigeaustin on Instagram, whilst will also be linked in the show notes, to tell me your thoughts or if I’ve missed anything that you think is worth considering!
Whilst you’re in that direction, it would also be incredible if you could take a print screen of this episode and share it to your Instagram stories, to show Everyday Ethical some love. It helps to spread the word about my little podcast and is a great way to say “thank you” for all of the free resources I create.
I know that this was a heavy one and I’m sure you’ll be thinking about it for the next few days (I will be), but I’ll see you all again next week!