Cultivated meat – also called cultured meat, lab-grown meat or cell-based meat – could be a convenient, animal-free and climate-friendly solution to the world’s growing and potentially disastrous appetite for meat.
More than 92 billion land animals are slaughtered globally each year. Apart from the unthinkable suffering they must endure, there is also a high environmental and climate cost to the rearing of animals, which we have written about consistently here at VSM.
Today there are more than 150 companies working on producing cultivated meat and seafood. They are developing a variety of meats including chicken, beef, pork and lamb and fish as well as milk. If the meat-eating population could be encouraged to switch to this alternative, we could achieve significant cuts to the greenhouse gas emissions that are currently coming from animal agriculture. We could also reduce, or even potentially eliminate, the need to raise animals for food in the first place.
Climate and Environment
We know that urgent emissions cuts are needed to avoid irreversible climate breakdown. Cultivated meat uses significantly fewer resources and can also reduce agriculture-related environmental pollution. One study showed that cultivated meat, if produced using renewable energy, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 92% and land use by up to 90% compared to conventional beef. Additionally, lab meat is made entirely without antibiotics, thereby reducing the risk of antibiotic-resistance due to intensive animal farming – a serious threat to public health.
Over the next few decades, cultivated meat and other alternative proteins are predicted to take a significant market share from the meat and seafood industry. If this happens it will mitigate agriculture-related deforestation, biodiversity loss, antibiotic resistance, zoonotic disease outbreaks, animal slaughter and suffering.
How is cultivated meat made?
To grow a piece of cultivated meat, two types of cells are needed – starter cells and a growth medium.
Starter cells come from an animal. These cells need only be collected once, in a process that is, according to an article in Sentient Media, “relatively painless for the animal”. One animal could theoretically feed millions, because the cells are capable of dividing indefinitely. Currently, most starter cells are sourced from living animals. In time, most starter cells will be sourced from cell banks.
These cells are then grown in bioreactors in a process that is similar to what happens inside an animal’s body. The cells are fed an oxygen-rich cell culture medium made up of basic nutrients such as amino acids, glucose, vitamins and salts, and supplemented with growth factors and other proteins.
The easiest products to make this way are those usually made with ground meat, such as hamburgers and chicken nuggets. Some companies are working on products with more structure, such as chicken breasts and steaks. These need a scaffold, or structure for the cells to grow on. The scaffolds can be vegetable-based, or they can be made of animal products like collagen.
Animal-free Growth Medium:
Back in 2018 I wrote an article about cultivated meat in which I pointed out the need to extract (in the case of beef) cells from an unborn foetus of a slaughtered cow in order to produce foetal bovine serum (or FBS). FBS was originally the growth medium needed to produce cultured beef. This process is not only unethical, it is also expensive, and companies have been working hard in the intervening years to come up with alternatives to FBS as a growth medium.
Nearly all cultivated meat companies are now trying to replace FBS by using recombinant proteins — strings of amino acids that have been genetically tinkered with in order to stimulate growth in the same way that the FBS does. After lengthy research, plant-based and synthetic animal component-free (ACF) growth media have now been made available.
While FBS-free growth media is quickly evolving for wide-scale production, the use of animal components cannot completely be ruled out for the entire industry. However, if companies can demonstrate success with animal-free options then these could become the standard.
In January of this year, Good Meat became the first company approved to sell FBS-free cultivated meat in Singapore. The company has also received approval from the USDA for its first poultry product, cultivated chicken, to be sold in the U.S.
Another company, Upside Foods demonstrated their own animal-free growth media in late 2021. Upside said it aims to start selling its cultivated chicken in restaurants in 2023, and in grocery stores by 2028.
The Dutch cultivated meat company Mosa Meat also announced that they have moved away from FBS in their production.
What happens over the next several years could eventually set the standard for the entire industry, and hopefully this standard will be animal-free. There are also a number of companies in the US and Canada working on cultivated pet food. The cultivated meat industry is certainly one to keep an eye on and is definitely something to be optimistic about for the future.