Lab-grown meat, also known as ‘clean’, ‘in-vitro’ and ‘cell-based’ meat, is set to become the petri-dish future alternative to slaughtering animals for food.
A number of international companies like Memphis Meats, who are backed by billionaire entrepreneurs Bill Gates and Richard Branson1, are working to develop lab-grown beef, poultry, pork and seafood.
To create this cultured meat, technicians collect stem cells from an animal’s muscle tissue (myosatellite cells) through a small biopsy while the animal is under anaesthesia, and place these cells in a dish with a nutrient-rich liquid. These cells can then grow as they would inside the animal2.
These muscle stems cells are critical to creating lab-grown meat, as when a muscle is damaged, stem cells create new muscle tissues to repair it. These cells are multiplied and form into fibres that then continue to make up muscle tissue – and down the line, meat3.
According to Netherlands-based Mosa Meat, who launched the first lab-grown hamburger in 20134, the meat is processed using usual food technologies – like using a grinder to make ground beef. All in all, they state no genetic modification is necessary to produce the meat.
Mosa Meat also says one sample of muscle stem cells can produce 800 million strands of muscle tissue – enough to make 80,000 quarter pounders.
The company also believes clean meat could be sizzling on barbeques as soon as 20215, with plans to have its first products available for purchase on the market.
How much will this cost consumers?
Mosa Meat estimates its lab-grown meat could cost €9 (around AUD$14.55) after the entire production process is scaled to industrial size6. This is a huge saving from the cost of its 2013 burger, which required €250,000 (around AUD$407,544.76) in funding to create, given its small-scale production.
As for the future? Well, Mosa Meats predicts their hamburger could cost supermarket shoppers as low as around €1 each (approximately AUD$1.63). Ultimately, the company says lab-grown meat should be cheaper than livestock meat and will showcase a more efficient production – something that has the potential to help with the global food crisis.
Is lab-grown meat ethical or environmentally friendly?
Animals Australia, a leading animal protection organisation, believes clean meat has the potential to live up to its name and ‘clean up the planet’7. The organisation says lab-grown meat requires less land, water and greenhouse emissions to produce, as opposed to raising livestock.
The organisation also says there are benefits for human health, as lab-grown meat is free from antibiotics and hormones – both of which are typically fed to many farm-raised animals. Furthermore, Animals Australia says consumers can also avoid the risk of food contamination from bacteria and ‘faecal matter’ that comes with raising and slaughtering animals.
Clean meat may eventually grow to become a viable, animal-friendly and cost-effective alternative to traditional meat farming, which could be a major shakeup to the industry; as it is, Roy Morgan revealed in 2016 that 2.1 million Australian adults have a diet that is fully or almost all vegetarian (which has risen from 1.7 million between 2012 to 2016)8.
Industry Communications Director Norman Morris (Roy Morgan Research) says that no matter the reason for eating less meat, whether it’s environmental or animal welfare, this trend is set to continue.
‘Not only has there been an increase in near or total vegetarianism across Australia, but almost 9.9 million Aussie adults (53.4%) agree that they’re “eating less red meat these days”,’ says Morris.
Perhaps lab-grown meat could provide a suitable alternative for those faced with an ethical dilemma or a tighter budget.
Is society for or against lab-grown meat?
A study released in 2017, titled ‘Attitudes to in vitro meat: A survey of potential consumers in the United States’, revealed most online survey respondents from the US were willing to try lab-grown meat9.
Clive J. C. Philips and Matti Wilks, who lead the study, also found only one-third of participants were ‘definitely or probably willing’ to try out clean meat regularly or as a substitute for farmed meat.
The study also showed men were more open to trying lab-grown meat than women, and vegetarians and vegans were more likely to understand the benefits of lab-grown meat as opposed to farmed meat. Vegetarians and vegans, however, were less likely to be open to trying clean meat than meat eaters.
The findings from the study’s vegetarian and vegan respondents echo Michael Tabet’s sentiments; the owner of the Charlie’s Raw Squeeze® outlets that specialise in fresh, local produce and 100% plant-based options in Queensland.
Tabet told Compare the Market that even though lab-meat could be a viable option for vegans, he would still opt for a veggie burger instead:
It’s [lab-grown meat] a big thing with vegans… personally, I don’t feel like eating meat at all, but I think it’s a better substitute from normal meat, as you don’t kill the animal to start the production…
If I had to choose between normal meat, lab meat and a good tasting plant-based pattie (which there are heaps of), I would choose the plant-based one as it’s all natural.
We also turned to our marketing department for their take on the issue. The majority of the team was in favour of trying lab-grown meat, with animal ethics a big reason for some participants.
One respondent said they try to cut down their consumption of meat where possible, as eating meat presented an ethical dilemma. This also meant they were open to a slaughter-free way of eating meat.
‘… if they can replicate the taste without having to go through the process of slaughtering the animal, it’d be something I’d be willing to try,’ they said.
Another respondent summed up their thoughts with, ‘cows are cute and shouldn’t be eaten’.
Most respondents argued against the worry that lab-grown meat was processed. One member of marketing said they probably wouldn’t notice the difference if they were given lab-grown meat:
‘There are countless things we put in our mouths which we have no idea about. Flavour Enhancer (E635), anyone? Soy lecithin? You could give me synthetic meat, and I’d probably have no idea. Same deal as eating a sausage – no idea what’s in it.’
Another respondent, however, wasn’t so sure of lab-grown meat’s safety, and also expressed their personal concern over the potential implications for the farming industry:
I think lab-grown meat is a great idea on paper, but the real-world implications can be different, especially for our health and the industrial farming industry, which millions of people rely on around the globe.
Some could argue that it’s a healthier option than slaughtered meat, due to its controlled grown nature, but I doubt humans could replicate 100% of what nature has created, especially the benefits.
Despite this, the participant did appreciate the scientific advancement:
‘I personally support the scientific curiosity behind it and I’d be keen to see if we can make it work,’ they said.
Scientific curiosity formed part of other respondents’ reasons for voting ‘yes’ to trying lab-grown meat. In particular, one person toyed with a hypothetical future where lab meat could one day reach new heights:
I think it’s a great idea as I’m sure there are other amazing applications that can be done with this technology, for example, growing meat on long space flights or on colonies on other planets to simply using it at home.
The thing that saddens me is people hate change, and convincing everyone to switch will be harder than converting people to reusable bags or the use of self-driving cars.
Another participant simply wanted to quench their own curiosity.
‘I’d be more than happy to try lab-grown meat as a once-off,’ they said. ‘However, it’s not something I would regularly purchase. Nothing beats the real deal.’
So, where do you stand with lab-grown meat? Would you take yours rare, medium-rare, or well-done?
Or would you simply let the plate slide?
- ‘The slow but steady rise of vegetarianism in Australia’. 2016. http://www.roymorgan.com/findings/vegetarianisms-slow-but-steady-rise-in-australia-201608151105
- Wilks M, Phillips CJC (2017) Attitudes to in vitro meat: A survey of potential consumers in the United States. PLoS ONE 12(2): e0171904. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0171904