Lab-grown meat is starting to create quite a buzz in the media with articles suggesting it could be a real gamechanger and that it could eventually change farming forever. Also known as “clean meat”, “cultured meat” or “no-kill meat”, there is certainly a good chance that lab-grown meat could severely disrupt the industry and there could be big implications for land usage, the environment and even the economic structures of major economies.
But is it feasible to grow meat in labs at a sufficiently large scale to make it competitive with conventional meat on price? That would certainly be required if the makers of lab-grown meat hope to attract enough customers to change – and even save – the world.
In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into lab-grown meat. We’ll explain what it is and whether or not it is (or should be) considered vegan. We’ll also take a look at the latest developments and the possible implications of lab-grown meat becoming widely (and cheaply) available to customers in restaurants and supermarkets. In case you do not know much about this relatively new food technology of cellular agriculture, let’s start by giving you an outline of what lab-grown is and the science behind it.
What Is Lab-Grown Meat?
As well as the alternative names mentioned already, lab-grown meat is also referred to as “artificial meat”, “cell-based meat”, “synthetic meat”, “in-vitro meat” and one or two others. Broadly speaking, lab-grown meat is almost exactly the same as meat that has been cut from an animal carcass, other than the major difference that the meat has been “grown” under controlled conditions rather than having once been part of a living, sentient animal. There is also the potential added benefit that because it is grown in controlled conditions, the meat is not exposed to diseases or indeed antibiotics that farmed animals are.
How It Is Made
Lab-grown meat is produced by initially harvesting stems cells from an animal – usually in the form of a biopsy that doesn’t kill or permanently injure the animal. The cells are then added to controlled vessels (usually called cultivators or bioreactors) in which they are “fed” oxygen and the nutrients they need to grow and reproduce, i.e. amino acids, fats, vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates – the same minerals humans require in fact. Of course, there would be little point in growing the bones and eyes and other similar parts of the animal and so just the edible meat is harvested, which can be moulded or textured to suit whatever product they will be used for.
In many ways, the process used to create lab-grown meat is very similar to that used to create mycoprotein (also known as Quorn). Rather than meat cells, however, mycoprotein is cultured from cells of Fusarium venenatum which is a type of microfungus. But the principle is broadly the same; that is the cells are fed nutrients that allow them to grow and replicate in a controlled environment.
Various companies have lab-grown meat under development at the time of writing and cells have been taken from a range of animals including chickens, ducks, cows and even rabbits, with lab-grown shrimps and tuna also on the horizon. It is a brave new world and no doubt there will be many issues to be resolved.
Is Lab-Grown Meat Genetically Engineered?
The lab-grown meat that is in development is not genetically engineered; it doesn’t need to be because the cells from which it is grown already exist. It could be argued that years of crossbreeding to enhance the characteristics of chickens, cattle, pigs and sheep (i.e. to increase the amount of meat they would provide to hungry humans) could be seen as a kind of painstaking process of genetic engineering. But in terms of manipulating the genes of the meat they grow in the lab, the cultured meat companies we have investigated specifically state they do not genetically modify their products.
Is Lab-Grown Meat Vegan or Even Vegetarian?
The most widely accepted definition of veganism from the Vegan Society makes things quite clear about what being vegan means. It states:
Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms, it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.
We say “quite” clear because there are one or two potential loopholes built into the definition, most notably the “as far as is possible and practicable” part. We believe this section can be applied to things like medicines and vaccinations, that is, vegans are fine to have a vaccine that might have been tested on animals on the basis that not doing so would not be practicable in health terms.
Relies on Living Animal Cells
When it comes to lab-grown meat, however, there are various reasons it could be said to contravene what it means to be vegan. Because animals are used to obtain the stem cells or other cells from which cultured meat is grown, it is fair to say that the animals from whom the cells were taken have suffered exploitation and possibly cruelty.
There is little doubt too that lab-grown meat that relies on cells that have originally come from live animals is a product that at least partly derives from animals, and hence – according to the definition above – would be out of bounds for vegans. Finally, despite being known in some quarters as “no-kill meat”, some animals are also killed or have been killed in the development of cultured meat or indeed the cell banks on which they are reliant.
Immortal Cell Lines
Many companies who develop lab-grown meat use biopsies to obtain the initial cells and hence the cell banks from which the fake meat is grown. But these cells will tend to age after a certain point and hence new cell samples will be required at regular intervals. This means that animals would still have to be used to gain the new cells each time. This problem could be mitigated by the so-called “immortal cell lines” that some companies are developing but that remains to be seen.
If immortal cell lines mean that lab-grown meat can be produced without the need to regularly acquire new cells from real animals, it would get closer to being a vegan-friendly food option. This could be especially the case if focussing on the section of the definition of veganism that suggests vegans should “promote[s] the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment”.
There is no doubt that the production of lab-grown meat causes far less harm and death to animals than conventional meat farming and slaughtering methods. And – as we shall see later – the environmental impacts of cultured meat are significantly less than those of convention animal husbandry. But the fact remains that while cells are taken from living animals and while other animals are killed during the development of cultured meat, it would be very difficult to argue it is vegan.
Lab-Grown Meat Is Not Vegan, But Is It Vegeterian?
It is therefore reasonably clear that lab-grown meat is not vegan, but when it comes to assessing whether lab-grown meat is vegetarian things are a little less clear cut. According to the Vegetarian Society, a vegetarian is someone who simply doesn’t eat meat, poultry, fish or seafood, insects, gelatine or animal rennet or stock or fat from animals. So, essentially, a vegan that doesn’t mind eating dairy, eggs, honey and other animal products that do not necessitate the death of the animal.
As it could be argued that lab-grown meat doesn’t actually contain any parts of an actual animal, such meat might definitely be viewed as vegan by some. Whilst the initial cells were taken from an animal that animal was probably not killed and possibly not really harmed (as vegetarians would view it). Moreover, if an immortal cell line has been developed from cells grown from cells that were initially taken from animals, it might be fine to suggest that the subsequent lab-grown meat products are certainly okay for vegetarians to consume. But then this will no doubt come down to why each individual is vegetarian in the first place.
Is Vegan Meat the Same as Lab-Grown Meat?
In a word, no. The term “vegan meat” is often used to cover a wide range of non-animal meat products. But, as we explain in our article on vegan meat, we view vegan meat as vegan-friendly products that aim to imitate or replicate animal meat in relation to their appearance, texture and taste. So, something like a Beyond Burger (one of the best vegan burgers out there) or THIS Isn’t Bacon Plant-Based Rashers (one of the tastier vegan bacon options) would fall into the vegan meat category.
As such, vegan meat products are not the same as plant-based (or fungus-based, for that matter) substitutes for meat products. So, a Portobello mushroom in a bap in place of a beef burger would not be classified as “vegan meat”. But rather just a vegan substitute for a burger. In truth, different people use different phrases as they see fit but, in general, there is some broad agreement on what the various terms mean.
Some people do use the terms “lab-grown meat” and “vegan meat” interchangeably, but this can be quite misleading. Not least because, as we saw above, most lab-grown meat would not really meet the criteria of being a vegan food in the first place. But the reason for the confusion appears to be that a lot of vegan meat products, such as those created by the likes of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, are initially created in labs or food technology hubs of some sort.
For instance, Impossible Foods have used various cutting edge food science techniques in the development of their products, such as inserting the DNA from soybean plants into genetically engineered yeast. So it is easy to see why people who’ve read articles about such techniques might well lump certain vegan meat products in with lab-grown meat.
Given that vegan meat products do not contain any animal products and haven’t used or exploited animals during their development, they are perfectly fine for vegans (as the name would suggest!). This is not the case for lab-grown meat which, despite often being dubbed “no-kill meat”, has been known to kill animals (and certainly exploit and harm them) during the development of their products.
Where Can I Buy Lab-Grown Meat?
Unlike vegan meat products (such as Beyond Burgers or Linda McCartney Vegetarian Sausages), lab-grown meat is not widely available for consumers to purchase at th present time. In fact, it’s extremely difficult to get at all and, at the time of writing, lab-grown meat has only been given regulatory approval to be sold in Singapore (more of which below).
There is no doubt that there are many firms (and investors) who are ploughing lots of resources into rolling lab-grown meat out to the masses and so it is surely only a matter of time before we begin to see it being more widely available. We suspect it will first become available in high-end restaurants, then perhaps from specialist food retailers, before it finally becomes available in supermarkets and perhaps even butcher shops.
The timescale for the possible availability of lab-grown meat in supermarkets is difficult to predict. But we’ll be following advances in the industry closely. If you are feeling impatient and fancy a glimpse at what the future of lab-grown meat might hold, take a look at the menu of this fictitious cultured meat restaurant… Dodo Nuggets anyone?
Lab-Grown Meat’s Restaurant Debut
Lab-grown meat was first made available to paying customers in a private members club in Singapore in January 2021. Priced at 23 Singapore Dollars (or around £13), the cultured chicken nuggets apparently proved quite popular.
The cultured chicken was developed by the GOOD Meat brand of US cultured meat company Eat Just. The same cultured chicken was also available at the time of writing for home delivery from the Madame Fan restaurant at the JW Marriott Singapore South Beath hotel.
Does Lab-Grown Meat Taste Like Real Meat?
On a cellular level, lab-grown meat is exactly the same as meat that has been taken from an animal. As such, the actual taste of the meat should be the same as conventional meat, or certainly very, very close. But the notion of flavour is slightly more complex and includes both olfaction (the sense of smell) and also trigeminal nerve stimulation which takes the texture and mouthfeel of food into account. As such, there is a potential difference between real meat and cultured meat because of possible textural differences.
As with any industry that is in its infancy, there is clearly plenty of scope for processes and products to be refined. As such, the texture of lab-grown meat is likely to get ever closer to that of real meat, though new, potentially more palatable, textures and flavours could also be introduced.
Lab-Grown Meat Vs Animal Meat: Health & Nutrition
As with the taste of lab-grown meat, when it comes to health and nutrition, it is almost identical to conventional meat. There are a couple of potential advantages of cultured meat over conventional meat on this front, however. Because cultured meat is produced in controlled environments, the cells are not exposed to diseases. Outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle have almost certainly led to variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (vCJD) in humans and show the possible dangers of consuming disease-ridden meat. As cultured meat is produced from isolated cell lines, there appears very little chance that disease could be transmitted through lab-grown meat products (if any).
Animals used to produce conventional meat are also often given antibiotics and this has caused concern about how the possible overuse of antibiotics could lessen their effectiveness and hence allow more diseases to take hold. There is also some concern that traces of antibiotics in meat could, in theory, result in greater antibiotic resistance in humans. That said, most countries that have solid food regulation agencies will regularly test meat samples from producers to ensure they are free of antibiotics.
Ability to Change the Nutritional Content
From a nutritional point of view, the quantities of protein, fat, iron and so on, are very similar to those found in conventional meat, though lab-grown meat producers could tweak which cells they grow so they might, for instance, reduce the fat content of a steak or burger and possibly increase its protein.
As we discuss in our article on the many health reasons for going vegan, plant-based food is generally far healthier than meat-based products. It tends to be lower in fat and calories and much higher in dietary fibre and usually contains higher amounts of essential vitamins and minerals.
It could be argued that protein from meat is easier for the body to access than many sources of vegan protein, mainly because meat contains all nine essential amino acids in high quantities. Most plant-based sources of protein contain only some of the essential amino acids and hence have to be combined with other foods to produce complete proteins (for instance peas and brown rice). Having said that, there are so many good quality vegan protein powders out there that many vegans opt to supplement their diets, especially those who want to build muscle bulk or are in training for some sporting event.
In general, vegan meat – and indeed any vegan meat alternatives – are going to be healthier than conventional meat and, by extension, healthier than lab-grown meat. But it might prove possible to manipulate processes of cultured meat to ensure the end products are actually even healthier than conventional meat. Time will tell on that front, but we suspect the producers of no-kill meat will certainly want to appeal to people on health grounds as well as the compelling case lab-grown meat presents on environmental grounds.
Environmental Implications of Lab-Grown Meat
There have been many people over the years, from scientists to farmers to statespeople, who have recognised the inefficiencies present in farming animals for food. Indeed, way back in 1931 none other than Winston Churchill penned an article about his predictions of the future in which he stated, “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” Very prescient, Mr Churchill.
The environmental impacts of meat production are explored in detail in our article on the environmental reasons for going vegan, but these broadly revolve around greenhouse gas emissions, energy usage, land usage and habitat destruction, water usage, pollutions from animal waste, and even antibiotic resistance in livestock (which could be argued to be more of an animal health and welfare issue, to be fair).
Far Less Damaging to the Environment
Lab-grown meat has much less of an environmental impact on all of those measures, some of them dramatically so. Clearly, with no need to house a load of animals, the land usage of cultured meat is minuscule compared to even the most intensive animal farms. There will be some space required for the bioreactors, other manufacturing and research and development processes, offices and so on, but this would be almost insignificant compared to the vast swathes of land required by cattle farms or even the mega battery farms used for intensive chicken production.
A preliminary study about the Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal compared cultured meat to conventional methods of production for beef, sheep, pork and poultry and conclude that cultured meat involves:
- 78-96% lower greenhouse gas emissions
- 82-96% lower water use
- 99% lower land use
- 7-45% lower energy use
As we can see, lab-grown meat is much less damaging to the environment than normal meat in every key way. The only meat to have lower energy usage than cultured meat was poultry, but we fully expect processes used to create the lab-grown meat will be more efficient and require less energy in the coming months and years. But other than that, cultured meat is massively less detrimental to the environment than conventional meat from animals.
Lab-Grown Meat: A Brief History
The concept of lab-grown meat could be said to have come from Winston Churchill (see above). The roots of the science of cultured meat were really born in the 1950s, however, when Dutch Scientist Willam Van Eelen started to examine ways of increasing food security. The first major practical step took place in 1971 when in vitro muscle fibres were cultivated by a pathology professor called Russel Ross… although that was the aorta of a guinea pig, so perhaps not the most appetising no-kill meat option there’s even been.
Various patents were filed for and granted for various cultured meat-related processes in the 1990s and 2000s, and NASA even began experimenting with cultured meat early in the 21st century when they cultivated sections of turkey and, er… goldfish. Interesting!
2013: First Lab Grown Burger
Investments from the Dutch government, a $1 million prize offered by PETA for the first company to bring lab-grown chicken meat to market, and various scientific breakthroughs hastened the advent of commercially viable cultured meat coming to fruition. Then in 2013, the first lab-grown burger was given to a select group of journalists, chefs and renowned foodies… and it was reported to have cost around $325,000 to develop. Suffice to say, the guests weren’t asked to pick up the bill.
Cultured Meat Companies Start to Surface
The 2010s saw a large increase in investment in cultured meat technologies and start-ups as the links between global heating and animal agriculture became ever more apparent. The likes of US company Memphis Meats (later rebranded as Upside Foods), Israeli start-up, Super Meat, and the aforementioned Eat Just – among others – all made big strides towards perfecting their versions of cultured meat. By May 2020, there were approximately 60 start-ups dotted around the world that produced cultured meat, were working towards that goal or were developing or offering related technology.
Awaiting Governmental Food Agency Approval
As things stand, clearing the regulatory hurdles of governmental food agencies could prove to be almost as tough as mastering the technology of lab-grown meat. For instance, to gain access to EU food markets, so-called “novel foods” such as cultured meat, need to be tested for around 18 months before being deemed safe. At the time of writing, only the Singapore Food Agency has granted approval for Eat Just’s cultured chicken to be sold to the public. But we fully expect plenty more governments and food agencies to follow suit in the not-too-distant future.
Conclusions: Is Lab-Grown Going to Change the World?
It might still be too early to say how much of an impact lab-grown meat will have on the world. There is little doubt that the environmental benefits of cultured meat over conventional meat are a big attraction. And, mixed with the ethical arguments against meat farming, there will be plenty of people willing to try cultured meat products… assuming the price can be brought broadly in line with meat from animals.
Whether the no-kill meat companies can scale sufficiently to make their product competitive on price remains to be seen. The regulatory barriers could also cause real problems and delays too. But we are confident that lab-based meat will certainly be on the rise in the coming years.
Having said that though, there is a real question about whether lab-grown meat is the best solution as an alternative to real meat. Given that there are so many good-quality vegan meat substitute products (from vegan sausages to vegan mince), there will no doubt be plenty of people – vegans and otherwise – who might well question whether the effort and expense of lab-grown meat are worth it. Vegans and many vegetarians will be understandably wary of lab-grown meat. And, until the products are able to be developed without the need to harvest cells from animals, this is likely to be a barrier to some people tucking into culture meat and fish products. Certainly based on the current processes we would say lab-grown meat would be out of the question for any ethical vegans.
Ultimately, for those vegans for whom the ethical concerns are secondary, lab-grown meat is much, much better than conventional animal confinement and slaughter, and though it is not perfectly vegan, it is very much the lesser of two evils. It will certainly be interesting to see how the industry develops and how the wider public react when lab-grown meat hits supermarkets shelves, as it inevitably will before too long.