With lab-grown meat, can we have our animals and eat them too?
Quick question: Which of these images is less appealing to you?
A few weeks ago, we were trying to decide which one to use in a story about animals genetically modified to grow extra muscle. In a non-unanimous decision, the full-bull glamour shot won out over the closeup. The latter, for some reason, seemed off-putting, like it might force readers to think too hard about what meat actually is.
This exercise in denial, which you perform each time you’re confronted with a late-night hot dog stand, has a name: “strategic ignorance,” according to Cor van der Weele, a bioethicist in the Department of Applied Philosophy at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. If we know too much about that juicy steak, she says, we might not want to eat it anymore — and that would be tragic, because juicy steaks are delicious. But the problem, van der Weele says, is that we end up with a lot of people who actually do feel uneasy about meat production, but just never do anything about it.
But for nearly 10 years, van der Weele has been studying something that she thinks could finally free us from our strategic ignorance: cultured meat. She first stumbled upon the stuff when she heard about a 2003 art exhibit in France called “Disembodied Cuisine.” The artists, Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, grew little pieces of frog meat in a lab and then fed the tiny “steaks” to diners in a gallery while the frog who supplied the starter cells looked on from a nearby terrarium. The frog, we presume, spent the rest of its life in therapy, while van der Weele became fascinated with cultured meat and has been studying it ever since.
“Inevitably, when you think more about [cultured meat], it loses some of its initial strangeness,” van der Weele says, “and at the same time, meat as we know it becomes more strange.”
Cultured meat, otherwise known as lab-grown or in-vitro meat, hit the big time in 2013 when Maastricht University tissue engineer Mark Post held his (in)famous “frankenburger” taste test. The cultured beef patty looked weird, reportedly tasted OK, and was in no way ready for mass production. But none of that mattered — the burger was a proof of concept, lab-grown chum for hungry investors.
The basic process behind Post’s patties is this: Take a muscle biopsy from a cow, isolate the cells responsible for muscle repair (there can be a couple hundred in just a few muscle fibers), and then put those cells in a so-called bioreactor full of a nutrient-rich serum. There, the cells will multiply — if all goes well, each will turn into more than a trillion new muscle cells. Next, place those new cells onto some kind of temporary support surface so that they can connect into muscle fibers. (Post currently uses an animal-derived gel surface, but says he’s experimenting with an algae-derived alternative.) Finally, knead the fibers — each about one millimeter in diameter and about two-and-a-half centimeters long — into a patty with salt, bread crumbs, and egg white, and voila! You’re ready for the grill.
Back in 2011, researchers assessed the environmental impacts of culturing 2,200 pounds of meat using an algae-based feedstock for the cells. The study accounted for everything in the production process with the exception of indirect land use for energy input materials and decommission of the production facility, and the results made for a pretty compelling case:
Since no one is actually mass-producing cultured meat yet, the assessment is entirely theoretical and contains many uncertainties. Still, the results suggest that growing meat in metal bioreactors could be much more sustainable than growing meat in the flesh bioreactors that we call cows.
What’s more, proponents of cultured meat say that it could finally free us from the nasty business of killing animals altogether — an unfortunate fate for even the happiest organically raised, grass-fed, antibiotic-free, local, cage-free, free range animal. PETA, the world’s largest collection of in-your-face vegans, got on the cultured meat bandwagon a few years ago, offering up $1 million to the first researchers who could create commercially viable in-vitro chicken meat (the deadline has since come and gone).
Ben Wurgaft, a historian interested in the culture and anthropology of food, has been researching cultured meat for the past two years. He says that most of the people he’s encountered in the field actually cite animal welfare as their primary motivation more so that environmental concerns. (Incidentally, he also says that most of the people working in the field seem to be very nice: “I rarely meet people in the cultured meat world I wouldn’t want to hang out with.”)
But despite all its potential benefits, there’s one big problem standing in the way of a cultured meat revolution: There just aren’t that many people working on it. A group at Tel Aviv University is trying to engineer a cultured chicken breast, and a Brooklyn-based startup called Modern Meadow is culturing flat sheets of beef and leather, but by Wurgaft’s count, there are no more than 10 research labs and (maybe) three companies working in the field, only one of which — Modern Meadow — is actually funded and working on a product, he says.
“The thing that will make me think that cultured meat is approaching fast on the horizon is when there are a bunch of labs doing this work,” he says. “It’s hard to believe that a breakthrough product like [cultured meat] is going to emerge out of a singular facility and that it will then create massive change in the food system.”
Isha Datar, the executive director of New Harvest, a nonprofit that supports early-stage biotech researchers developing sustainable ways to make animal products, agrees: “It is something that is very worth pursuing, but that pursuit is not taking place,” she says.
Datar, who has tried Modern Meadow’s “steak chips” (which she describes as tasting like beef broth with the mouthfeel of potato chips) says that there are a variety of different techniques for culturing meat that scientists still need to try: different starter cells, serums, surfaces for tissue growth. What if you want a whole steak instead of quarter-pounder? The odds of finding a complete process that works at scale go way up as more researchers get in the game, Datar says, and who knows? Maybe cultured meat turns out to be just too hard or expensive to mass produce, but “we’ll only find that if we start investigating.”
In the mean time, Post is at least willing to try. He and his team have already made a few improvements to their method since the 2013 tasting. For one, they’ve started culturing fat tissue (the original burger was all muscle). They’ve also improved the proteins in their meat to avoid having to add things like beet juice and saffron for coloring, which they did back in 2013. And perhaps most importantly, they’ve started using a synthetic serum that can almost entirely replace the bovine serum that they originally used to feed the cells.
Bovine serum is not ideal because it comes from the blood of fetal calves and therefore has all kinds of animal welfare and quality control issues associated with it, Post says. Plus, he says, it would be in short supply in a world where cultured meat drastically reduces the number of cows we have on the planet.
The synthetic serum that the lab now uses comes from a commercial proprietor, but the researchers do eventually want to try an algae-based serum like the one used in the environmental impact study. Growing large quantities of algae, however, could come with issues of its own, like keeping the plants alive while they fight off disease and compete for nutrients, as synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis pointed out in a 2012 Discover Magazine article.
As for scaling, Post says, the group wants to gradually work its way up from the half-liter bioreactors that it currently uses to 25,000-liter vats. A reactor of that size, he estimates, could feed about 10,000 people for one year, assuming people eat just under 90 pounds of meat annually — a considerably low estimate for the U.S., where the average person ate about 70 pounds of red meat and about 55 pounds of poultry in 2012.
At that scale, Post estimates, the meat would cost about $30 per pound. That’s pretty high compared to the bargain prices you’ll find on those plastic-wrapped trays of meat at your local supermarket, but it’s not bad considering how many people (including Grist) freaked out over the $325,000 price-tag on the original 2013 burger — a freakout that was kind of unfair. That whopping figure was the budget for an entire tissue engineering lab, not the cost of a consumer product.
And besides, that burger was just a demonstration of what was possible. When the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk for the first time, no one gave them a hard time for not offering competitively priced airfares that could compete with the railroads.
But all that — the 25,000-liter bioreactor, the $30-per-pound price tag, the 10,000 people who will be fed — only happens assuming that everything goes smoothly. And it won’t, because turning a lab experiment into a commercial process never does. Post will almost surely have to tweak his process along the way.
Funding, too, will be a big obstacle, Post says. The 2013 tasting did attract investors, he says; but without a company, he doesn’t really have anything for them to invest in yet. That’ll be a problem as each step up in bioreactor size comes with high equipment costs.
Money is actually a major issue throughout the field, Datar says, partly because cultured meat is a long-term, high-risk investment and partly because the research lies in a kind of no-man’s land between the medical world, where there’s plenty of tissue engineering research going on, and the food science world, where there isn’t.
Post himself is actually a physician who got his start in tissue engineering making human blood vessels. He says that the methods for human tissue engineering and other types of tissue engineering are pretty much the same, but that researchers in the medical world don’t have to worry about scale and cost the same way that people trying to engineer a competitively priced happy meal do.
Still, Post says he thinks he can have a commercial product ready in five or six years. It won’t be a $3.79 Cultured Quarter Pounder with Cheese, but Post is confident that people will want it.
“If this gets accepted, and you can do this in an efficient and animal-friendly and environmentally friendly way, it has to at some point take over the market,” he says, “or at least create a new market for itself. We are not targeting vegetarians; we are targeting all the meat eaters.”
Shortly after she first heard about cultured meat, van der Weele, the bioethicist, held a series of workshops in which she asked participants how they felt about the strange new meat.
“When I first started to talk about cultured meat with people, first there were some responses of disgust — not as many as you might expect, but some — and people then said, ‘Well, this is not something I want to think about.’”
But then van der Weele observed something interesting. After just a brief conversation — sometimes only a few minutes — many who reacted negatively at first started to reconsider, van der Weele says. It seemed that just thinking about cultured meat forced people to confront the way we currently produce meat, she says. That, in turn, brought out all the uneasy feelings that strategic ignorance so conveniently keeps at bay.
“All of a sudden, it’s no longer a threat to think about meat as something that may be morally very satisfactory,” she says.
Many of van der Weele’s workshop participants were especially taken with what she calls the “pig-in-the-backyard scenario.” She and a colleague explained the scenario and how people reacted to it in a paper published back in 2013:
In the future we might all have a pig in our backyard or in our local community, from which some stem cells are taken every few weeks in order to grow our own meat, either in a machine on our kitchen sink or in a local factory. It is an idea that in some form or another often turns up in conversations on cultured meat. It typically takes the form of pigs or cows in urban farms or backyards, held as pets and serving as donors of muscle stem cells. …
The degree of shared enthusiasm in response to this idea was remarkable; it was so large that the preferred future of cultured meat was completely clear, as far as the participants of this workshop were concerned. A combination of joy, inspiration and amazement characterized the atmosphere.
For Datar, the future of cultured meat looks something like the current beer industry (they’re both, after all, just examples of biotechnology in big metal vats, she says). There could, for example, be giant meat factories — or “carneries” — out in rural areas, small artisanal ones in cities, and everything in between, she says. Since there’s no clear way to patent the cell division process like there is with, say, GMOs, she says, this beer-like trajectory seems more probable than a future where just a few giant corporations churn out cultured meat for the masses.
Another crucial difference between cultured meat and GMOs, Datar says, is the fact that we’re already talking about cultured meat.
“The first GMO was for sale in ‘93, and the first Right to Know campaign was 2003, so there was a real feeling of betrayal that the public didn’t know what was going on. Whereas with cultured meat, we’re having this conversation way in advance of it being ready for market,” she says.
But that’s if it’s ever ready for market. For now, the rest of what Wurgaft calls the “post-animal bioeconomy” seems to be taking off. Companies are already making animal-free rhino horns, spider silk, eggs, and milk. (The latter two started as New Harvest ventures and recently closed on $1.75 and 2 million in seed funding, respectively.) Culturing these kinds of products is easier than meat, Datar says, because it involves genetically engineering microbes to produce the necessary proteins — something that we’ve been doing for a long time to make things like insulin.
Wurgaft, who’s writing a book about cultured meat, says that for him, the interesting questions aren’t when or if or how lab-grown meat is going to take over the market. He prefers instead to think like an anthropologist, focusing on the culture and philosophy of cultured meat: Who are these people trying to grow meat in a lab? What are their motivations? Do they prefer to call their product cultured meat or just meat? What would a lab-grown meat industry mean for society?
“That narrative stops being interesting after three seconds,” he says. “We don’t know what the future of food is, and we’re not gonna know by continuing to read the story.”
And yet, many in the cultured meat world are selling us visions of the future. They, like practically every early-stage technologist since Gutenberg, have had to do so in order to attract investors.
Of course, we don’t know what our cyborg progeny will be eating decades from now: Insects? Soylent? Plant blood? Maybe cultured meat will revolutionize the meat industry, or maybe it’ll turn out to be just another overhyped fantasy. Either way, perhaps the most constructive thing we can do now is simply consider the possibility and face up to our strategic ignorance in the process. And we’re sorry, but that means you may just have to walk away from the hot dog stand.
More stories in this series:
Sit back, relax, and put on your meat glasses: We’re about to take a deep dive into the most controversial food group.
The concept of “clean eating” is actually pretty messy, especially for women.
It’s not as black and white as you think: We might not need a whole world of vegetarians, but we could all do with a little less flesh.
From fancy farm-to-table spots to hipster burger joints, too many restaurants focus on meat, and that’s terrible for the climate.
Get Grist in your inbox