As you’ve likely already seen in the headlines, lab-grown meat is here.
What Is Lab-Grown Meat?
Lab-grown meat, also known as cultured meat or cell-based meat, is produced by culturing animal cells in a laboratory setting rather than raising and slaughtering whole animals.
The process involves taking a small sample of living animal cells, typically from muscle tissue, and providing them with a nutrient-rich in vitro environment that allows them to grow and multiply.
Lab-grown meat is considered an innovative solution to address some of the challenges associated with conventional meat production.
It can also potentially reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, such as greenhouse gas emissions and land use, as well as the ethical concerns related to animal welfare.
Additionally, it may offer a more efficient way to produce meat, potentially decreasing the risks of foodborne illnesses.
While the technology and concept of lab-grown meat are promising, it’s important to note that it is still in the early stages of development and has not yet reached widespread commercial availability.
As with any emerging technology, ongoing debates and controversies surround its safety, sustainability, and potential long-term implications.
I’m going to carefully cover each of these concerns in depth below.
How Is Lab-Grown Meat Made?
When I first heard of lab-grown meat, I didn’t have a clue what that process entailed, but I was completely intrigued.
So by doing comprehensive research, I discovered that these are the basic steps to growing meat in a lab.
Cell Isolation and Collection
A small sample of animal cells is taken, usually through a biopsy, without harming the animal.
For chicken meat, the cells come from fertilized chicken eggs.
This means that you can eat the meat of an animal that is still alive and completely unharmed—with exceptions for kosher and halal lab-based meat.
It is real meat, but it was raised in a lab rather than on the animal.
These collected cells are stem cells that have the ability to differentiate into muscle cells.
The isolated cells are placed in a bioreactor, sometimes called a cultivator.
This machine is a closed and controlled environment that provides the cells with the necessary nutrients, growth factors, and scaffolding materials to support their growth and maturation.
Wondering what scientists feed the meat?
It turns out that lab-grown meat is given an oxygen-rich cell culture medium that is made of vitamins, amino acids, glucose, inorganic salts, and other proteins.
Tissue Formation of Lab-Grown Meat
The cells multiply and fuse together to form muscle tissue, the meat’s primary component.
The tissue then undergoes a process of maturation to develop its structure and texture.
Harvesting The Cell-Based Meat
Once the cultured meat reaches the desired texture and structure, it is harvested and processed.
Sometimes, the cell-based meat is combined with other ingredients to create familiar meat products like burgers, sausages, or nuggets.
It takes about one to eight weeks to be ready to harvest.
And if you were wondering what the turnaround is for chicken– it’s about six to eight weeks for the most efficient producers.
It looks a lot like minced chicken when extracted, according to Andrew Noyes, who is head of global communications and public affairs at Good Meat’s parent company, Eat Just.
Why I’m Skeptical of Lab-Grown Meat
My knee-jerk reaction to lab-grown meat was, “Oh, absolutely not.”
I had the immense privilege of spending a lot of time on my grandparents’ cattle farm as a child, and I plan on raising my own cattle soon as an adult.
I see traditional meat production as a special, almost sacred practice that we should protect and continue for as long as possible.
But, of course, I had to be fair.
So I asked some questions and did my best to find answers from both sides of the controversy.
Here are my skepticisms and what I found out about each of them.
Is It More Effective Than Traditional Meats?
Lab-grown meats certainly have the potential to be more effective than traditional meats, but they aren’t there just yet.
This method uses far less land, water, and resources (feed!) to produce the meat.
Scaling is going to be quite the hurdle, though.
Currently, Upside can produce 50,000 pounds of meat per year and expand to 400,000 pounds annually with some modifications.
As of 2020, the average person in the US eats right around 264 pounds of meat a year, according to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
That means the Upside facility could provide all meat needs for 189 people annually and up to 1,515 people after the modifications.
And considering that nine out of ten Americans regularly eat meat (not to mention we have 331.9 million Americans!) I’m not sure how that would fare well for lab-grown meats in terms of supply and demand.
You also have to consider the size of this facility compared to a traditional farm.
Upside, located in Emeryville, California, is 53,000 square feet, equivalent to 1.2 acres.
And even more impressively, this entire operation exclusively uses renewable energy.
On the other hand, if you wanted to raise 50,000 pounds of beef, you would need 100 cattle on about 100 acres.
That is assuming you raised 1,200-pound beef animals that yield a hot carcass weight of 750, a cool carcass weight of 730 pounds, then 500 total pounds of meat after being de-boned and trimmed.
For the western United States, though, even more acreage would be needed.
It takes about ten acres to raise one animal unit here in my home state of Montana.
So it would actually require 1,000 acres to produce the same amount of meat that Upside does in 1.2 acres.
While I am highly skeptical of how lab meat will scale, the future does look promising.
And, of course, I don’t expect it to replace traditional farming.
Instead, I expect it will be a nice alternative that works alongside old-fashioned agriculture.
Will It Become Affordable?
The first lab-grown burger cost $330,000 to make and was served at a news conference in London, England in 2013.
Those of us who have built chicken coops and runs, bought all the supplies to raise chickens, and then the chickens themselves can sympathize.
After all, many chicken farmers jokingly refer to their first egg as a “$1,000 egg”.
But for now, prices are expected to be closer to $17 a pound.
While some restaurants offer lab-grown burgers for $9.80 each, it’s still considerably more than typically grown grocery store meat.
Will This Weaken Our Immune Systems?
Since a single animal could hypothetically feed millions of people millions of pounds of meat, I can’t help but wonder what that will do to our immune systems.
Isn’t a diversity of animals with different diets, hormone levels, and climates better for our health?
Will eating the same animal over and over weaken our immune systems? Will it cause deficiencies or malnourishment?
I haven’t found much information on this aspect yet, though I anticipate more studies will give us a better idea of this in the coming years.
What I did learn, though is that lab-grown meat will seriously reduce the threat of antibiotic resistance.
When beef and chicken are grown in labs, the risk of E. coli and salmonella dramatically drops.
Meaning that antibiotics will not play nearly as large of a role in agriculture.
Currently, 80% of the antibiotics we produce in the US are sold for meat and poultry production.
Only 20% of antibiotics are intended for human consumption.
So lab-grown meats could not only reduce the antibiotics we give our animals and our risks of E. coli and salmonella, but they could also help us cut down on dioxin poisoning in humans.
They can cause problems with hormones and reproduction, like cancer, infertility, and birth defects.
Dioxins are found in many food products, especially animal products. They usually come from the herbicides and pesticides used in the animals’ feed.
Dioxins build up in the fatty parts of animal products, like eggs, farmed fish, beef, pork, and poultry.
And did you know that farmed salmon can have 16 times more dioxins than wild salmon?
Once dioxins enter our bodies, they are hard to eliminate because they stay in our fatty tissue for a long time.
Men can’t get rid of them at all, and women can only release some through breast milk, which might affect their babies.
Unborn babies are especially sensitive to dioxins, so pregnant women are advised to eat less oily fish and dairy products.
Many countries check their food for dioxins to prevent large contamination problems.
But even with these efforts, people still consume a lot of dioxins, which is concerning according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Dioxins are just one example of harmful chemicals found in animal products.
Other harmful toxins are arsenic, melamine, lead, mercury, and cadmium. Lab-based meats reduce or eliminate most, if not all, of these toxins.
Are Lab-Grown Meats Actually More Eco-Friendly?
Over the past fifty years, the beef industry has lowered its emissions by 40% while increasing meat production by 60%.
Derrick Risner, a doctoral graduate and lead researcher at UC Davis, estimates that lab-grown meats use 4%-25% more energy than the average for retail beef.
Still, he says that lab-grown meats have the potential to be 80% lower than retail beef, which is encouraging.
This major energy reduction could come from switching the labs where the meat is grown to renewable energy.
In these cases, emissions would fall to almost zero.
And just to clarify, SCiFi Food’s lab is currently running on 100% renewable energy.
This may be difficult to scale, but it is possible.
Does Lab-Grown Meat Support The Wrong People?
This is my greatest concern with lab-cultivated meat.
Today’s corporations are larger than they’ve ever been, wielding more money and power than we’ve ever seen before.
They seem to grow exponentially, with almost no one to stop them.
Just to be clear, businesses of any size, large or small, can be harmful or corrupt in policymaking.
But larger businesses have much more illegitimate power, which can result in dangerous, powerful lobbying practices.
Without going into too much detail on that front, the bottom line for me and many other Americans is that we would rather support small businesses and smaller farms and ranches rather than mega-corporations.
Studies conflict with each other on what percentage of small farms make up global food production.
- Vincent Ricciardi, et. al. says farms under 2 hectares (4.9 acres) produce 30 to 34% of the food supply in 2018.
- The United Nations estimates small farms produce 70 to 80% of the global food supply in 2021.
While it may seem like lab-grown meat is simply taking the profits from large grocery supply chains, you have to remember that those foods didn’t materialize at the store—they came from a farm or ranch somewhere first.
Lab-grown meat has the potential to “rob” grocery stores and small producers in one fell swoop.
Right now, traditionally grown meat that is purchased directly from farmers and ranchers is generally cheaper than grocery store meat.
And traditionally raised grocery store meat is substantially cheaper than lab-grown meat.
But for how long will this last?
Is it possible that lab-grown meat will eventually become cheaper than small producers?
And how will things change if that happens?
I can’t help but think that cell-cultured meat will not replace the small American farmers and ranchers because those of us who support them do so because we believe in them and their mission.
But I cannot be certain of this.
And for that reason, I am highly skeptical and concerned about a future with lab-grown meats.
Does Cell-Cultured Meat Taste the Same and Have the Right Texture?
Cultivated meat isn’t perfect yet.
The texture is close and indiscernible for many, but some people will be able to tell the difference.
The taste is nearly identical, and the texture is close but not perfect.
Scientists are working on creating muscle tissue that is the same texture as traditional meat, and I can’t help but believe that it’ll be completely undetectable within the next few years.
While I am mostly supportive of lab grown-meat, I do feel it’s important to label it as such.
Consumers have the right to know what they’re eating.
Will Lab-Grown Meat Be Labeled Correctly?
I know, I know, more government interference.
Many homesteaders adapt their way of living as a means of taking control of their lifestyle and controlling the foods and medications they consume.
They are skeptical of the government and want to avoid government overreach.
I can empathize.
That said, I trust major corporations even less than the government, which is why I strongly support clear, completely unambiguous labels for all food products, especially meats.
Right now, it appears that both manufacturers in the US are actually selling their lab-grown meat as a loss as a way to promote it and encourage consumers to try it out.
They are being very proactive in labeling the meat as cultivated.
It appears that the USDA has ruled that lab-grown chicken and other meats must be labeled as “cell-cultivated.”
So even if producers tire of labeling their meats, they must still disclose the product’s origins.
You don’t have to worry about accidentally buying or eating lab-grown meats without your consent.
Why I Support The Development of Lab-Grown Meat
I know this is a controversial take to have as a homesteader, but please hear me out.
When I set out to write this article, I was not planning on taking this stance; I’m just as surprised as you are!
Lab-Grown Meat is Not Anti-Agriculture
While lab-grown meat still feels unconventional and strange to many, it is still a form of agriculture called cellular agriculture.
And I believe it does fit into agriculture just beyond being an industry category.
Let’s talk about why that is.
Cell-Cultivated Meat Allows More Space for Ethical and Traditional Operations
Once we take the pressure off producers to generate millions of pounds of meat for our growing population, I think we will have the space to slow down and focus on quality rather than quantity.
Of 900 million acres in the United States, only 1.5%, or 13.5 million acres, is farmed regeneratively.
Americans have already made it clear that sustainable agriculture is important to them.
Permaculture is gaining popularity at an incredible rate, and so is backyard gardening, chicken-keeping, and homesteading.
We’ve also seen a 71% rise in online searches for sustainable products.
Producers are quickly realizing how important ethical and sustainable agriculture is to consumers.
I believe if we give them the option to expand into regenerative agriculture by removing some of the crushing demands, they will.
When unethical producers are confronted with the reality that they are no longer necessary in food production, they’ll have to do better or get out of the game entirely.
Cultured Meat Makes Old-Fashioned Farming Feel More Luxurious (As It Should Be)
Call me an optimist, but I see lab-grown meat doing a lot to boost respect for traditionally grown meats.
It naturally romanticizes the old way of doing things.
I think it will command more appreciation for livestock and the wonderful people who take the time to raise their animals ethically.
Much like the cheap light bulb made a good candle feel like a luxury item and shiny new cars made old ones into classy and jaw-dropping vintages, I think lab-grown meats will elevate the perception of traditional farming methods.
A growing number of consumers genuinely love farms, farmers, and the lifestyle that productive agriculture creates.
I can back this up by showing you solid facts and figures from the agritourism industry, or inviting visitors to ranches, farms, homesteads, and or ag-based businesses.
In 2017, the USDA Census estimated that agritourism generated almost 950 million dollars in sales in just one year.
That is triple the revenue of 2007!
Allied Market Research also projects global agritourism will grow by another 13.4% by 2027.
I absolutely do not anticipate lab-grown meats putting a damper on the general public’s love and respect for traditional farms and ranches at all.
That admiration is here to stay.
Many People Will Never Make the Switch
Traditional meat holds heavy cultural and religious significance for many.
Those with halal or kosher diets may decide to stick to meat raised the old-fashioned way, at least until lab-grown meat is better curated to suit their needs.
Kosher meat is always halal, but halal meat is not necessarily kosher.
Kosher meat must be slaughtered a certain way, and the meat cannot come from a living animal. The animal must be dead before anything is harvested from it.
Kosher law also prohibits consuming blood, the sciatic nerve, certain animal fats, and combining dairy and meat.
The Israeli Chief Rabbi says that certain cultured meats are kosher, but few options are available at the time of this writing.
Cultured meat is only halal if the cells used to grow the meat were sourced from an animal that was slaughtered, according to Sharia Law.
And, of course, tradition also calls for the use of traditionally raised and harvested meat.
Many homesteaders, myself included, will continue to raise animals for the sake of loving our land and animals and eventually filling the freezer.
Lastly, some people are unwilling to try alternative meats, and that’s okay too.
This research revealed that younger and more educated generations are likelier to try alternative foods (plant-based protein, single-cell protein, insect–based protein, and in vitro meat-based protein) than older or less traditionally-educated populations.
Cell-cultured meat is not intended, nor should it be intended, to fully replace the living, breathing animals we love to raise and harvest.
It’s simply an alternative, much like gluten-free pasta, sugar-free candy, mocktails, and lactose-free dairy.
The Human Population is Exploding With Growth—We Need Help
Experts expect the global population to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 and 10.4 billion by 2100.
Some say the world population could be too large to feed by 2050.
Professor Julian Cribb, author of “The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It,” says that world hunger is arriving faster than climate change.
This is why alternative growing methods (for both meats and plants) are desperately needed.
I am willing to welcome any options attempting to feed the people.
It takes seventy-five times more energy to produce a pound of meat than a pound of corn.
If we want to feed everyone, we need to drastically cut meat production or find new ways to do so sustainably.
Lab-grown meat could be the answer, or it could at least be a helpful step in the right direction.
Either way, I am happy to see creative contributions being made to feed the world.
Lab-Grown Meat Is Consistent
A single animal can produce millions of pounds of meat now, thanks to the fast reproduction of their cells.
This means that we could all technically live off the same animal.
I haven’t found any research to back up my hypothesis here, so take it with a grain of salt.
But I believe this would mean that lab-grown meat will be uniform, consistent, and much easier to cook with as a whole.
Every burger, sausage, pork chop, steak, and chicken nugget should cook the same every time, taking much of the guesswork out of cooking.
It could also result in very uniform tastes and textures, which would be helpful for those with food selectivity and sensitivity.
This would greatly benefit autistic individuals who suffer from food texture hypersensitivity.
Cultured Meat Could Be More Balanced / Healthier
Something I didn’t anticipate, but it makes perfect sense, is that cultivated meat can be altered to improve and balance the nutritional profile.
Lab-grown meat is nutritionally identical to farm and ranch-raised meat because it is made of real animal cells.
But beyond that, scientists are able to adjust their mediums to raise or lower different components, such as lower cholesterol or raising iron levels.
Lab-Grown Meat May Be a Great Option for Vegans and Vegetarians
Even though lab-grown meat completely removes death from the equation, it is still not considered vegan or even vegetarian. It’s still developed from animal cells.
Still, key animal welfare organizations support lab-grown meat.
PETA funded a one million dollar prize for the first laboratory to create commercially viable lab-grown chicken in 2008 and offered it until 2014.
Lab-grown beef hamburgers and pork sausages were created, but not lab-grown chicken by this deadline.
The prize expired before it could be claimed.
Lab-Grown Meat Could Be More Sustainable
We are currently losing about seventy-five billion tons of topsoil a year across the world due to erosion.
And in the corn belt of the United States, we’ve lost over half of our topsoil, with some areas having completely lost it.
Supplementing with lab-grown meat could grant us the opportunity to create a healthy carbon-packed topsoil again.
Cattle don’t just need topsoil for grasses, hays, and other forage, many operations rely on corn and grains for finishing the meat.
That requires a healthy layer of topsoil.
Blended burgers, which are burgers that are made of both lab-grown meat and plant byproducts, generate 87% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, 90% less land use, and 96% less water use than traditional beef patties.
This is a massive improvement, especially considering that the US has a dwindling water supply, and over 50% of our land is used for cattle farming operations.
It takes 1,849 to 2,400 gallons of water to make a pound of meat, and only 100 gallons to make a pound of cultivated meat.
Like Everything Else, Scientists Will Significantly Improve It
I have no doubts that lab-grown meats will improve over time in terms of productivity, cost, taste, texture, healthiness, and availability.
I also expect the carbon footprint to shrink, benefiting our planet and ecosystems.
Even though these meats are relatively new, unproven, and not perfect, I believe they are a step in the right direction for feeding more people with less land, less water, and fewer resources.
History has shown us that initial skepticism toward new products is not uncommon.
In the past, numerous inventions and innovations were met with doubt, only to evolve and improve significantly with time.
I believe that lab-grown meats will eventually join the rankings of personal computers, electric cars, smartphones, and renewable energy—all of which were heavily scrutinized when first introduced to the public.
FAQs About Lab-Grown Meat
Does Lab-Grown Meat Taste Like Regular Meat?
In the early trials, some individuals mentioned that lab-grown meat had a texture and taste similar to conventional meat, while others noted slight differences in flavor and mouthfeel.
For instance, it sometimes felt more dense than traditional meats.
The taste and texture of lab-grown meat are influenced by several factors, including the specific type of cells used to culture the meat, the growth medium, and the tissue engineering techniques employed.
Scientists and researchers continuously work to improve the taste, texture, and overall eating experience of lab-grown meat by refining these factors.
Is Lab-Grown Meat Approved for the US?
Lab-grown meat has been approved for use in the US as of June 2023.
It is legal to produce and sell cultivated meat in all fifty states.
Cell-cultivated foods have to be labeled as such, as the USDA declares.
Is Lab-Grown Meat Vegetarian or Vegan?
Lab-Grown meat is not considered vegetarian or vegan because it is made of real animal cells from real animals.
These animals were not harmed nor killed in the production of the meat, but nonetheless, their products were used for the creation of lab-grown meat.
Final Thoughts on Lab-Grown Meats
I was completely surprised to agree with so many aspects of lab-grown meats.
They use less land, water, resources, and energy to produce.
They reduce or eliminate E. coli and salmonella; the meat is still real and can help us combat antibiotic resistance in our animals.
And best of all, lab-grown meats are cruelty-free, providing an ethical option for those who are concerned about animal welfare, especially those from larger factory-style farms.
Truly, I don’t see cell-cultured meat as a competitor for traditionally raised meats but rather a helpful alternative.
It presents an opportunity for us to diversify our protein sources and make more informed choices about our food consumption.
As a homesteader, I eat most of my meals from home and like to source as many proteins from my land or locally.
I still value a connection to my land and my animals who grow up on it.
I see the importance of supporting local, sustainable agriculture.
But when I make my next monthly ninety-minute drive into town, I might have to make a stop at a restaurant for a lab-grown burger.
The idea of enjoying a newly sourced, still-delicious meal that aligns with my values of sustainability and compassion for people and animals is truly appealing.
What are your thoughts on all this? Are you willing to try lab-grown meats when they become available in your area?
Let us know in the comments section!