One of the most contentious food trends that have popped up is lab-grown meat, or as producers like to call it, “cultured” meat. TIME Health looks into the work of Dr. Mark Post of Maastricht University and one of the most advanced techniques of creating meat in a lab. To make meat, Post and his team take “muscle-specific stem cells from real cows and [coax] those cells to form fibers of muscle tissue”. Once the fibers are formed, they’re able to form hamburger patties.
In 2013, Post and his team unveiled their lab-grown burger to the world. Although intriguing, taste-testers found that the “cultured” burger did not quite meet their taste bud’s standards. Not to mention, the burger cost $331,000. But since the launch, Post and his competitors have been working to make lab meat that’s affordable and marketable to the public. Post is confident that they’ll be able to put out “$10 cultured meat burgers on the market in the next four to five years, and ‘supermarket priced’ cultured beef within 10.” A San-Francisco-based food company, Hampton Creek, has been bold enough to announce that they could have cultured beef patties on the supermarket shelves in 2018!
Lab Meat Challenges
As we saw from the 2013 burger launch, it is not exactly cheap to produce lab meat. One of the biggest hurdles producers have to face is scale. It takes a lot of time, space and resources to make meat in a lab. According to Discovery Magazine, “It currently takes massive amounts of cultured tissues to produce even one patty, meaning that both physical space and cost requirements far outweigh the returns of growing meat in a lab at the moment.” They also say that beef grown in a lab can’t exactly be called “cruelty-free” because the cultured tissues need fetal calf serum for sustenance.
Another challenge that lab meat producers face is the question of safety. Post believes that since they’re taking cells from a cow and making it into meat product, it shouldn’t be any better or worse than the animal flesh humans are used to eating. As the executive director of the Modern Agriculture Foundation, Shaked Regev, goes one step further to say that meat made in a lab could actually be healthier than eating traditional meat because in the lab, animal antibiotics shouldn’t be required. He also says that “Eliminating animals from the equation should also remove the risk of salmonella or other bacterial contaminants”. But depending on who you talk to, you might get a more skeptical point of view.
Can Cultured Meat Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?
One of the biggest arguments in support of cultured meat is the potential it has to reduce the carbon footprint of meat production. According to the United Nations, livestock accounts for more carbon dioxide emissions than automobiles. They also estimate that meat consumption across the globe will rise almost 10 percent between now and 2030. Post believes that having more cultured meat on the market would reduce the amount of methane produced from cows and prevent forested land from being converted into livestock farms.
But since lab meats are fairly new to the global food system, we shouldn’t jump the gun and assume that cultured meat will be the answer to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the livestock industry. Carolyn Mattick, from the Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability, says, “the global warming potential of cultured meat may actually be greater when it comes to pork and poultry, though smaller for beef”. She also co-authored an analysis that revealed the environmental trade-offs of cultured meat. If lab-grown meat is produced on a large scale, a lot of heat and electricity will be used by these facilities. It will be interesting to see how (and if) the cultured meat trend will progress further.