Is Lab-Grown Meat the Future?

The past few weekends have been tough for my growling stomach. First, it was a lake party with mouthwatering meats from a renowned St. Louis smokehouse. Then it was a grand opening with drinks flowing and nothing to eat but hot dogs and hamburgers. Carnivores were thrilled, but I got a bit hangry. (My husband is a saint).


You guessed it: I don’t eat meat. Usually it’s not an issue, but here I almost caved. Because eating meat is practically hardwired in our DNA. It’s natural for humans to hunt and eat what they kill, like our ancestors did, and like many hunting enthusiasts still do today. But our love affair with meat is quickly becoming a fatal attraction.


Depiction of our ancestral hunter-gatherers. Courtesy: Psychology Today
Depiction of our ancestral hunter-gatherers. Courtesy: Psychology Today

How did we get to this point?


The human population is growing exponentially. By 2050, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization says we'll need to produce 70% more food to support the additional 2.3 billion humans on the planet. Not helping matters, the average American eats 74% more meat today, compared to 60 years ago.


I’m not going to implore the world to go vegan, because that’s simply unrealistic. But there is an alternative solution to consider. It’s based on the realistic notion that most people don’t want to sacrifice their burgers, bacon, or barbecue. They're delicious - I get it!


So what if you were able to have your “steak”…and eat it too?


Several years ago, I stumbled upon a small start-up called Memphis Meats (now called UPSIDE Foods). Its idea seemed pretty outrageous, but if successful, could completely revolutionize how we eat. The company creates meat from stem cells, commonly called “cultured meat” or “clean meat”.


All it takes is a biopsy; cells drawn from a living animal (a cow, for example). Cultivated muscle and fat cells divide and multiply, eventually forming into small pieces of muscle tissue. In 2013, the first “cultured meat” hamburger was created using this technology. (It was also the most expensive burger in the world, costing $300,000 to produce)!


Since then, progress has accelerated. An Israeli start-up just announced the opening of the world's first cultured meat production facility. The first lab-grown sushi bar is about to open in San Francisco. And pending regulatory review, UPSIDE Foods' first cultured meat product, chicken, will be available to American consumers by the end of this year.


Lab-grown sushi (Courtesy: Wildtype); Lab-grown chicken salad (Courtesy: UPSIDE Foods)


Is cultured meat the answer?


Impact on the environment:


According to the FAO, livestock production creates more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector – all the cars, trucks, planes, and trains in the world.


In addition to polluting the atmosphere, livestock production eats up 75% of our planet’s agricultural land. With both our meat consumption and human population increasing, what does that mean for the precious land remaining?


Compared to meat made from animals, a preliminary study found that lab-grown meat emits 78-96% less greenhouse gas, uses 99% less land, and 82-96% less water.

Environmental impact of conventionally farmed beef vs. lab-grown beef
Environmental impact of conventionally farmed beef vs. lab-grown beef

However, other studies have shown that the production of lab meat emits higher levels of CO2, which may, in the long run, actually be worse than the methane emitted by today's meat production. So until more research is done, the case for cultured meat shouldn't rest on benefits to the environment alone.



Impact on your health:


Swapping out the “bad” fats

“Meat is healthy – it has protein!” people say. True, but many cuts of beef in particular are filled with saturated fats, leading to high cholesterol, clogged arteries, and of course, obesity. With cultured meat, saturated fats can be replaced by healthier fats like omega-3’s, which are actually shown to reduce the risk of heart attacks.


Eliminating food-borne illness

Today, roughly 99% of farmed animals in the US live on factory farms (officially called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations).


Raising animals in these cramped conditions results in serious threats to human health. This often results in food product recalls due to Salmonella, E.coli, Campylobacter and other bacterial contaminations.


The CDC estimates that roughly 1 in 6 Americans­ gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases each year.


Ground beef recall

Even vegans are at risk, since spinach and other leafy greens become contaminated too. How? One major culprit is manure, which contaminates the water supply to nearby farm fields, either through irrigation or flooding. Yuck, right? Yet another reason this is a collective problem we must work together to address.



Impact on animal welfare:


This one is probably the clearest. Today, more than 10 billion land animals are killed each year in the US to produce meat, dairy and eggs. That’s more than one million animals killed every hour. The quality of life for factory farmed animals, confined in tight, sometimes filthy spaces is often deplorable.


Factory farmed pigs in gestational crates
Pigs are highly social and are among the world's most intelligent animals.

REASONS YOU MIGHT OBJECT:

(If I've missed one, please let me know in the comments!)


But you’re still “exploiting” animals for humans to consume!

A biopsy doesn’t kill a single cow. Because of this, some literally consider cultured meat to be vegetarian. But yes, some animals must be kept in confinement for this process. Is it worth it? You decide.

I’d prefer to keep eating filet mignon and Kobe burgers.

Understandable! More research is needed to develop the flavor and textural intricacies of different cuts of meat. Hopefully, that will come in the future.


But what about the livestock farmers?

It seems a little contradictory to me that conservatives, who for the most part espouse the ideals of free market capitalism, can be so protectionist when it comes to jobs and industries. Yes, we want as many Americans gainfully employed as possible. But when an industry evolves, we’re only hurting ourselves if we push back too hard. Progress is inevitable. Let’s anticipate the change, rather than fighting it.


If and when clean meat becomes the norm, ideally farmers would get some help from the private sector, government, and/or non-profits to transition from livestock to either growing crops, becoming a clean meat producer, or something else entirely. Many groups, like the Rancher Advocacy Program, are already doing this important work today.



Rancher Advocacy Program Instagram
Courtesy: @rancheradvocacyprogram on Instagram

Creating “meat” this way isn’t natural.

No, it isn’t. But neither is the fast food Americans eat so much of. There are so many brain and hormone-altering chemicals in our processed foods it’s truly unbelievable. If you want to learn more about how to swap out the junk foods / products you love for healthier versions, I recommend following just.ingredients on Instagram.


Lab-grown meat utilizes modern technology, but the meat will be just that: meat. Without the chemicals and hormones in our preservative-filled processed foods. Which is more natural?


It’s not what God intended.

I believe in the circle of life: that every carnivorous animal has evolved to eat animals lower on the food chain. But humans have gone overboard, sacrificing ethics for the bottom line. To me, killing 140 chickens per minute on a stainless steel conveyor belt is the least natural and humane way to die I can think of. And shockingly, some Republican lawmakers thought this wasn’t fast enough.


Jesus as "the Good Shepherd", by Phillipe de Champaigne, 16th century.
"The Good Shepherd" by Phillipe de Champaigne, 16th century

Although many believers interpret man's dominion over animals as a God-given right, I do not believe the way humans consume meat today is how God intended us to consume other living, sentient creatures in His Kingdom. There are many examples in both the Old and New Testaments of this. Here’s one:

"Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.” (Luke 12:6-7)

Here, Jesus is indicating that each sparrow - though not given much value by humans - is loved and cared for by God.


In Genesis 1:28, God also commands humankind to “replenish the earth”.


If we can no longer supply our exponentially increasing population with enough meat in a humane manner, would God not want us to find a viable solution?



RESOURCES:


"Cultured meat" is still a few months away, at least. In the meantime, if you're interested in some alternatives to meat, I've included some of my favorite plant-based products and vegetarian recipes below.


Meat substitutes:

Beyond Burgers and Impossible Burgers - try them with buns, ketchup, cheese, or your other go-to fixin’s for the optimal experience. Most grocery stores carry these. Also now available at many fast casual chain restaurants.

Quorn meatless nuggets - the kids love them and so do I! Sold at Whole Foods.

Dr. Prager’s California and TexMex Veggie Burgers. Our kids love Dr. Prager’s Kale Littles.


Recipes:

Buddha bowl - loaded with protein-filled hearty, healthy, whole ingredients

Buffalo Tofu Bites - buffalo sauce makes everything better!

Cheddar Broccoli Frittata - a deliciously filling breakfast, lunch or dinner

Mexican black beans - These are amazing. I make this recipe in massive quantities and freeze whatever's left!



Now the million-dollar question: would you try lab-grown meat?