Lab Grown Meat: Future or Fantasy?

Side by side with Silicon Valley, the hot and sandy nation of Israel has become a world leader in a wide variety of tech innovations – from mobile printers to state-of-the-art medical diagnostics. Most recently, Israel has broken into the emerging science of lab-grown (or “cultured”) meat. Several Israeli start-ups have joined a handful of other companies from Britain and the US in driving research into what may turn out to be the future of food. One of these new companies is the Jerusalem-based Future Meat Technologies, whose founder Yaakov Nahmias claims: “If we want to make sure that our kids eat the same thing that we eat today, then we need to dramatically change the way we manufacture it”. All of this is in response to a very simple problem: producing meat is very inefficient and it’s bad for the environment.

In addition to the moral issues around eating intelligent life, the issue of sustainability is one we may have heard many times before. For most of us, sustainability doesn’t put us off the beef, pork and poultry products we’ve come to love. From a technical perspective, the emerging solution of synthetic meat is an idea that looks fantastic on paper. Advocates across the board, including Yaakov Nahmias, point out that synthetic meat production could use up to 10 times less water, land and energy than conventional farming. This is especially significant since the agricultural industry is estimated to be producing 13 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2013.

Although these reductions seem immense, it’s easy to see how they can be achieved when looking at the details. Traditional farming requires the production and maintenance of whole animals, including parts which will never be eaten—from bone matter to viscera—at dramatic expense in terms of food and water, as well as the extra space required for animals to move around in (in those cases where animals can move around at all). We grow grains, harvest them, feed them to animals, kill them and then eat them. Each stage of this process operates with an inefficiency. It is currently estimated that each kilogram of beef requires 25 kilos of grain and 15,000 litres of water. This waste, and everything from the inefficiencies of creating more animal tissue than we need to the excess of space usage, can be circumvented—at least in theory—by, in a lab, growing only the tissue we intend to use. This also cuts out a great deal of the wasteful biological process required to break down and re-build digested food molecules (i.e., metabolism), since we cut out the entire digestive system by feeding nutrients to cells directly. Additionally, this process avoids the production of methane commonly associated with farming cattle (a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than CO2).

As it stands, all kinds of meat substitutes have arisen from products like soy, nuts, and even fungal mycoproteins (which sound about as appetizing as a PETA infomercial). As a result, not only does lab-grown meat seem like a good alternative to conventional meat, it stands to be a great alternative to competitors on the market as well, all of which are attempting to replicate the real thing but—by definition—are never going to be fully successful. No matter how well you dress these substitutes up, they will never actually be meat.

So far, this may read like an extended PR campaign for cultured meat. But there’s more to the story than the alluring possibility of slaughter-free hamburgers and steak: despite all its promise, lab-grown meat is still a long way from supermarket shelves. The first reason for this is the impressive price tag which currently sits, at its least costly, at an expensive $50 per thin strip of beef (from Israel’s Aleph Farms). Although current meat substitutes are expensive, they aren’t anywhere near as outrageously priced as their cultured meat counterparts, and this means that lab-grown meat has a lot of catching up to do with its competitors. The second reason is that, although the meat tissue itself can be grown in a lab, most scientists have yet to get the texture of muscle figured out. It’s one thing to produce a lump of cell tissue in a petri dish, but it’s quite another to mimic the striation of muscle tissue.

Many researchers have pointed out that these are merely setbacks, and (although predictions somewhat vary) we can expect properly textured lab-grown meat to make its way onto the markets within the next few decades. In the first instance, although $50 may seem like a lot, it’s a far cry from the $300,000 cost of the world’s first lab-grown beef burger in 2013. With this in mind, a $299,950 reduction in price in only 6 years is an impressive feat, averaging out to a reduction of roughly $50,000 per year. Moreover, prices can always be expected to drop further once the process of production is moved to an industrial scale. In the second instance, progress is already being made in replicating the texture of synthetic meat. Aleph Farms, the producers of the $50 steak, have already managed to layer several types of tissue including muscle, fat and blood vessel. Other products, like chicken nuggets, sausages, and burgers, will require less work, since they represent meat which is already unstructured.

What is clear in the veganism timeline is that it isn’t a fad that’s going to fade away any time soon. British supermarkets have been keeping pace with the increase in vegan and vegetarian lifestyles across the country and are forecasting an increase in meat free sales. Additionally, The Vegan Society points out that—due to the number of vegans having tripled since 2006—they consider themselves to be part of the fastest growing lifestyle movement in the UK. Whether this claim is true or not, it’s hard to argue with the statistics: there’s a large and growing market for meet-free food in the UK and abroad. However, in an era of anti-GMO and pro-natural attitudes, it seems that many consumers could have reservations about lab-grown meat. On the other hand, a survey from the American Sentience Institute found that 53% of respondents would switch to slaughter-free meat if they were equivalently priced, and lab-grown meat alternatives also polled well in India and China. Based on this, it isn’t a stretch to expect that this number will increase over time as synthetic meat becomes more culturally normalized.

With a clear market in mind and impressive progress being made, it seems reasonable to assume that we’ll all be trying out lab-grown meat soon. Unfortunately, however, that doesn’t currently look very likely, given the considerably high prices most cultured meat innovators are still operating at. In addition, studies have found that almost half of consumers would not be interested in paying a premium for lab-grown meat. To successfully hit the market, these companies will first need to make good on their promise to provide a less expensive alternative (in addition to a more ethical one).

With this in mind, it’s difficult to say when lab grown meat may actually become viable. But don’t expect to see it any time in the next decade or so – even if some consumers can be tempted into paying moderate premiums.

What isn’t negotiable, however, are the new sets of regulation that will need to be introduced by bodies like the Food and Drug Administration before this meat can be widely sold. Moreover, the meat industry itself will likely meet its new competitor with a great deal of increased competition. However, with a whole new cannon of climate change literature calling for massive reductions in meat and dairy, it may just be a matter of time before the meat on our plates comes from cells on a petri dish.

About the Author

Former Editor and Journalist at Pi Media, Student at UCL, Pi Media

Former journalist and editor at Pi Media and student in the History and Philosophy of Science BSc at UCL