What's so gross about lab-grown meat?

What if scientists could create meat that was identical in taste and texture to animal-derived meat – AND it produced fewer emissions and required a small fraction of the resources used to raise conventional meat?

What's so gross about lab-grown meat?
Photo by Ivy Farm on Unsplash

My husband and I were hanging out with a few friends at our local beer farm recently when I mentioned how excited I am to try cultivated meat.

(Assuming it ever comes to market in a meaningful way.)

Horror sparked in my friends’ eyes as they realized I was talking about meat… made from cells… grown in a lab. One visibly shuddered while another shook his head, saying, “NOPE. No, thank you!”

The topic quickly shifted so I didn’t have the opportunity to ask them why they were so repulsed by the idea of cultivated meat. My guess is, the thought of something grown in a lab seems unnatural – too divorced from our environment and any recognizable ecosystem to be something living beings should consume.

(Though I’ve seen these same people cheerfully eat processed snacks that feature milk derivatives, hydrolyzed spices, and other ingredients that come from labs.)

That said, it's obvious why people might automatically assume that technology + food = bad.

The industrialization of food production has had some horrifying consequences, such as the overuse of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers that leach the nutrients from soil and cause chemical runoffs that poison local ecosystems. Not to mention vast lagoons of animal waste that release dangerous amounts of toxic pollutants into the environment and animals being forced to suffer their entire lives in cages that are barely big enough to hold them.  

Yet the negative aspects of our current over-industrialized farming practices are precisely WHY I’m so excited by the idea of lab-grown meat.  

I love hamburgers and bacon and turkey and all things meaty and delicious. I do! So much!

AND I’m horrified at the impact our species’ love of animal protein is having on the world around us.


>> Animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

>> Meat and dairy production takes up a whopping 30% of the planet’s total land surface.

>> Meat and dairy production account for 83% of all agricultural land use.

>> The amount of waste produced by livestock and poultry in US factory farms is almost 13 times more than that produced by the entire human population.

>> Livestock make up 62% of the world’s mammal biomass while wild mammals account for just 4%. (Humans comprise the remaining 34%.)

>> More than 6 million animals are killed for consumption every hour. To satisfy our hunger for meat, we inflict an incomprehensible amount of suffering on our fellow creatures.

Those are just a few reasons why our current agricultural system has to change if we ever hope to create a carbon-free, sustainable society that exists in greater harmony with the natural world around us.

But how can we liberate ourselves from our appetite for animal meat?

Do we appeal to people’s better natures and hope that the looming threat of climate change will make them voluntarily choose to stop eating meat, except perhaps on rare occasions?

It would be great if it were that easy.

But I'm guessing the majority of people on the planet aren’t going to change their eating habits and give up foods they love unless they absolutely have to. Look around and you’ll see endless proof that we have a hard time saying no to delicious food. When we have it in abundance, we are loathe to give it up. Our ancestors had to endure times of serious food scarcity and their fear of starvation is hard-coded into our DNA.

So, what’s the answer?

How do we convince people to eat less of the “good stuff” when their lizard brains are telling them they can never be certain where their next meal is coming from – or if it’s coming at all?

Do we end agricultural subsidies and/or enact policies that raise the price of meat so high that most people will be forced to eat mostly vegan or vegetarian – or allow governments to ban the eating of meat and make the production, distribution, and consumption of it illegal?

Neither move seems likely to be well-received by the majority of people on the planet.

Laws and regulations and pleas to “do the right thing” will take us only so far… especially when we’re talking about 8 billion people all over the world belonging to different societies and cultures, many with a limited number of foods and resources available to them.

They’re not going to give up their favourite nutritionally dense and delicious form of protein and fat unless they absolutely HAVE to. That means losing physical and/or economic access to animal-derived meat – OR being presented with an alternative that’s just as delicious and competitively priced.

THAT'S why I’m so interested in lab-grown meat.

What if scientists could create meat that was identical in taste and texture to animal-derived meat and even healthier for us to eat – AND it produced fewer emissions and required a small fraction of the land, water, and energy used to raise conventional meat?

I know we're a long way from that kind of technology. (Though we’re getting pretty close with dairy, looks like.)

But what if such a thing became possible within the next decade?

If companies started offering cultivated meat that was identical in every way that matters to regular meat – AND used vastly fewer resources and zero cruelty to create – why would people not go for it?

Imagine what we could create with the vast amounts of land currently used to raise and feed livestock…  

  • Sustainable homes for families (and, dare I say, the impending wave of climate refugees we’re going to see flowing into different parts of the world).
  • Nature reserves to preserve local wildlife and act as carbon sinks that mitigate the effects of climate change.
  • Solar/permaculture farms that create energy while growing a dense array of diverse foods that ensure the health of the soil and offer meaningful, well-paying work for people who want to work outside and be close to nature.

Our options are limited only by our imagination and willpower to make it happen.

How close are we to making it happen?

Depends on who you ask. I've seen a ton of articles about Israeli companies that are making lab-grown steak and scallops, companies in Singapore making cultivated chicken, UK companies making lab-grown pork, Dutch companies making burgers, and U.S. companies working on chicken, duck, seafood, and more.

Right now, it looks like most of these companies are still very much in the "sell the concept to attract more funding" stage. And, interestingly enough, there was a recent spate of articles about a study that showed the energy required to produce cultivated meat could be 25 times GREATER than the energy required to produce animal-derived meat. (Though it turns out that's only if the labs are required to adhere to pharmaceutical regulations instead of food regulations, and doesn't seem to acknowledge that the technology will have to get scaled to the point of energy and cost efficiency – not to mention deliciousness – if it's going to succeed at all.)

So it's clear this industry is still very much in its infancy.  

Who knows if lab-grown meat will become a viable alternative to the animal-derived kind?

I don’t! But I hope it does. Because the benefits to humanity and the planet could be huge.

And as a long-time Trekkie, I am 100% down with the idea of some kind of "replicator technology" that creates animal-free food that tastes delicious and doesn’t involve the suffering of other living beings.

There is a non-zero chance we can create that reality. And since the possibility exists, it seems worthwhile to follow that thread to see how far it can take us.

If we’re going to imagine our best possible future (given everything that’s happening in the world right now), we may as well shoot for the moon.

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