Across the globe, we kill approximately fifty billion chickens every year for consumption . Many scientific studies have shown that the amount of meat we consume is not only bad for our health, but is having a detrimental impact on the planet . While many people have chosen to adopt vegetarian diets because of this, some scientists have come up with an alternate solution: lab-grown meat.
Lab-grown meat is not vegetarian per se, but it requires the slaughter of far fewer animals, and could have a significant impact on the future of the meat industry.
What is Lab-Grown Meat?
Lab-grown meat has several different names. These include cultured meat, in-vitro meat, cultivated meat, cell-based meat, or “clean” meat. Some may also refer to it as “cellular agriculture” .
This new meat is different from other meat substitutes because it does come from an actual animal. To simplify the process, these are the basic steps to creating lab-grown meat:
- Scientists extract stem cells from an animal (a chicken, cow, pig, etc.)
- They place these cells in petri dishes with a growth medium and some scaffolding (such as collagen) to help muscles cells multiply and grow.
- After enough muscle cells have grown, the end product resembles real or “natural” meat [3,4].
This product is not vegan or vegetarian because you do need an animal in order to create it (though that may change). That being said, you do not have to kill an animal in order to extract a few of it’s stem cells. Therein lies the basic idea: eating meat without killing an animal.
That brings up the next question: is lab-grown meat really no-kill?
The answer, unfortunately, is no. The reason is because of the growth medium scientists are currently using to cultivate the meat. Right now, they are using foetal bovine serum, which does necessitate killing cows.
What is Foetal Bovine Serum?
Fetal bovine serum (FBS) is the liquid fraction of clotted blood from foetal calves. It contains a significant amount of nutritional and macromolecular factors that are essential for cells to grow. For this reason, it makes the perfect medium for lab-grown meat .
The problem is that the only way to get FBS is from a pregnant cow during slaughter. For some, this presents an ethical dilemma .
The use of FBS means that lab-grown meat does require the slaughter of some animals. While the number of animals is far less than the requirements for traditional meat, it is not completely “no kill” as some brands try to market themselves.
Lab-Grown Meat Approved for Sale for First Time
Although many companies have been working on lab-grown meat for some time, none has been approved for sale. That is, until now.
US company “Eat Just” has made chicken bites that have just passed a safety review by the Singapore Food Agency. The company makes the cells in a twelve thousand liter bioreactor, then mixes them with plant-based ingredients to create the final product.
The cells they used to start the process came from a cell bank, and thus did not require killing any chickens. They did use fetal bovine serum as the growth medium, but the company said they will be using a plant-based serum in the next production line.
For now, there will be a very small supply of chicken bites. The company says a restaurant in Singapore will be serving them .
Is Lab-Grown Meat Better for the Environment?
Currently, due to the small production volume, lab-grown meat actually creates more carbon emissions. The manufacturers, however, say that once they increase their output, the overall energy requirements will go down. This means that the product will produce less carbon and use less water than traditional animal farming.
This approval in Singapore, at any rate, has created an opportunity for other manufacturers to start creating products for sale.
“I think the approval is one of the most significant milestones in the food industry in the last handful of decades,” says Josh Tetrick, of Eat Just. “It’s an open door and it’s up to us and other companies to take that opportunity. My hope is this leads to a world in the next handful of years where the majority of meat doesn’t require killing a single animal or tearing down a single tree.” 
While this is a significant breakthrough for the company, Tetrick says that they still face many challenges. Unsurprisingly, one of these is consumer reaction. He explains that nutritionally their product is the same as chicken. It may not, however, taste exactly like a real chicken bite.
“Our hope is through transparent communication with consumers, what this is and how it compares to conventional meat, we’re able to win. But it’s not a guarantee,” he said .
Other challenges include getting approval in other countries and scaling up production. Tetrick says that if they want to service all of Singapore, as well as other countries around the world, they will need ten thousand or fifty thousand liter bioreactors.
Another barrier to commercial success is the cost of lab-grown meat. As of now, it can cost a few hundred dollars per pound, putting it well out of most people’s price range. Several companies are working on improving their production process to lower this cost. One of these companies, Future Meat Technologies, says that it is hoping to bring the cost down to ten dollars per pound by 2022 .
The Future of Meat
Whether you’re enthused by the idea or not, lab-grown meat may be the future of sustainable meat production. In fact, one study found that lab-grown beef will produce 95 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, 98 percent less land use, and up to half as much energy .
A recent report from the global consultancy estimated that by 2040, sixty percent of the “meat” that we eat will either be lab-grown, or we will replace it with plant-based products .
Bruce Friedrich, at the non-profit Good Food Institute in the US, said that lab-grown meat likely won’t become mainstream for a few years. Still, this is a significant moment in the food industry.
“The [Eat Just approval] is a very big deal for the future of meat production globally,” he said. “A new space race for the future of food is under way.”