Lab Grown Meat – the ethical alternative or a mad scientist invention?

Written by Science, Science & Tech

Over the last 2 years, the number of vegans has soared from half a million to almost 3.5 million, with increasing numbers of us ditching juicy beef burgers for a cruelty free option. However, a newly developed lab grown meat may open the door for those of us who want those succulent flavours in our meals, without promoting factory farming. The ultimate question surrounding this new ‘clean meat’: is it really the answer to a healthier, more ethical diet, or are the logistics of mass production and cost simply not feasible?

Lab grown meat first came to light when Jason Matheny co-authorised a paper on cultured meat production and created New Harvest, the first non profit organisation that was dedicated to supporting in vitro ( in the lab) meat production, in the early 2000s. Following this, a professor at Masstricht University in 2013 produced the first lab-grown burger patty, and ever since lab grown meat has gained more and more media attention. For example, food technology giant Memphis Meats gained around $17 million in investments from sources such as Bill Gates and agricultural company Cargill, to continue investigating the possibility of lab grown meat.

Lab grown meat is manufactured by collecting stem cells (cells which can differentiate into a variety of other cells) from the muscle tissue of an animal. Scientists then grown and sustain the cells so they can divide rapidly, which accumulates to the formation of muscle tissue or meat. Mosa Meat has claimed that one meat tissue sample from a cow can yield enough muscle tissue to make up to 80,000 burgers, and so if successful in mass production the newly created lab meat could transform the food industry.

So what makes this latest invention so great? Scientists claim that the new meat will have a triple benefit hit, improving the environment, our own diet and reducing animal cruelty, as well as being more economically viable. If widely adopted, lab grown meat could significantly reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced, such as methane. This is would be as a result of a lower demand for cattle, which were recently predicted to contribute 9.1% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the EU, as lab grown meat only requires the generation and maintenance of stem cells rather than a whole animal.

Furthermore, the production of lab grown meat would significantly reduce the amount of land required for agricultural use. For example, it is predicted that for every 10,000 square metres used to produce lab grown meat, up to 200,000 square metres could be converted back to its natural state from agricultural land, significantly reducing our environmental footprint.

In addition, the new meat is also thought to be much healthier for us, since omega-3 fatty acids could be added as an additional health bonus, while at the same time reducing the amount of antibiotics used in meat production that have resulted in antibiotic resistance in the past , and so more medicines could be used to combat a variety of diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis.

However, this new meat invention hasn’t avoided teething problems, with the product’s flavour and cost coming into question. The cost to produce lab grown meat is currently astronomical, for example in 2008 it was calculated that it was about US$1 million for a piece of beef weighing 250 grams (0.55 lb), with considerable investment needed to switch the production process to a mass scale. Furthermore, in 2013 when a burger made from lab-grown meat was presented to journalists, the patty cost more than $300,000 to produce and was overly dry (from too little fat). However, scientists are attempting to combat and reduce the cost of production to make their idea more feasible.

Therefore, how soon will we see this designer meat on our shelves? Some scientists predict it could be feasible to have lab grown meat products on supermarket shelves within the next few years, however scientists will need to jump over several hurdles to achieve their goals within this time frame, with the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) only now starting to consider how the safety of the production of the meat should be regulated.

As with any scientific discovery, there are sides both for an against this relatively new invention. However, I think if you can eat a new product that’s healthier for you personally and everything else around you but tastes the same as the original, why not give it a try?

Last modified: 24th February 2019

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