The Complexity of Cell-Cultivated Meat

Written by Morgan Clark · January 24, 2024

If you pay attention to climate-related news, you may know that two manufacturers were recently FDA-approved to sell cell-cultivated chicken. Upside Foods and Good Meat are the two companies launching the sales of lab-grown meat for the first time in US history.  

While this is exciting news, it has also sparked a range of emotions. For a variety of reasons, cell-cultivated meat is a controversial product among groups that do and don’t eat meat. Cell-cultivated meat may have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with industrial agriculture, but it currently requires large energy inputs, is quite expensive, and its consumption is a concept people struggle to feel comfortable with. Although unresolved issues remain with its production, cell-cultivated meat has the potential to lessen global warming and address other problems associated with the food industry. 

Before diving into the advantages, disadvantages, and its limitations, it is important to understand how cell-cultivated meat is made.

What is cell-cultivated meat?

Cell-cultivated meat, also known as “cultivated meat”, “lab-grown meat,” and “cultured meat,” requires four main steps to be produced. First, a sample of stem cells are taken from a live animal about every three months. These cells are put in a bioreactor, which creates a nutrient-rich environment and allows the cells to replicate. The conditions in the bioreactor are changed to grow the cells into muscle, fat, or connective tissue, and lastly, the cells are separated and rearranged to resemble the makeup, texture, and look of meat from the original animal.  

What are the advantages?

Reducing animal suffering

The first advantage of cell-cultivated meat is that it reduces animal suffering. In order for the meat to be grown, only a small sample of cells is needed. While this does require operating on multiple animals to find the most suitable cells, the animals that provide the stem cells are not killed in the process. One welfare concern that could still be raised is whether these animals are treated well before the biopsies occur; however, at the end of the day, lab-grown meat will result in less animal killing and suffering overall. 

Reducing the harms of industrial agriculture

Another potential advantage of lab-grown meat is that it may be able to reduce the need for industrial agriculture. Industrial agriculture poses a lot of problems to the environment. One issue is the exhaustion of valuable resources. A large reason that animal agriculture has such damaging effects on the environment is that it has a high water use. Tremendous amounts of water are required to grow crops for animals, to eat clean and hydrate animals, and to process animal products. Additionally, waste and manure management also needs large amounts of water to ensure cleanliness and sanitary conditions. While water use varies depending on the animal and type of meat that is being produced, its usage is higher than it would be for cell-cultivated meat which requires fewer animals, thus reducing the need for these processes which involve water.  

Photo Credit: Amber Kipp on Unsplash

Furthermore, industrial agriculture is responsible for many greenhouse gas emissions, especially methane emissions which come from beef production. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) aim to produce as much meat as possible in the shortest amount of time. As a result, animals are forced to eat foods and crops that they would not eat in the wild in order to optimize their growth. Cows, for example, are used to grazing on grass, which requires large open spaces. Concentrated animal feeding operations squeeze as many cows as possible into a small space and feed them grains, forages, and other foods which their bodies are not equipped to digest. The fermentation of these foods in cows’ stomachs leads to them releasing more methane than they would eating a grass diet. Methane is a greenhouse gas which is thought to have a heat trapping potential which is around 85 times greater than carbon dioxide on a per mass basis. This gas has detrimental effects on the earth. Cell-cultivated meat has the potential to decrease the need for industrial agriculture and reduce methane emissions. 

Breaking up monopolies

Cell-cultivated meat may combat the way in which few companies are able to monopolize food production. The resources required to develop and maintain a concentrated animal feeding operation are many. This means a few large scale corporations are able to dominate meat production. Many of these corporations heavily rely on and or have partnerships with large oil and gas companies. These relationships perpetuate the use of fossil fuels and further exacerbated effects of climate change. In contrast, the two lab-grown meat companies that were recently approved by the FDA are not owned by any of the 11 largest food corporations in the country. This shift may help to redistribute the power that is concentrated among the few companies. 

Reducing Biohazards

There are many biohazards and human health risks that come along with industrial agriculture and the consumption of meat. A transition from animal meat to cell-cultivated meat could eliminate these issues and avoid another pandemic like COVID-19. Conditions in CAFOs that are meant to maximize animal growth rates lead to health complications. Animals are more likely to get sick from incorrect feed and inhumane conditions. In order to ensure that animals don’t die or become unwell and infect others, they are pumped with antibiotics. An unfortunate side effect from this is an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When humans then consume this meat that contains antibiotic resistant bacteria, their body becomes resistant to antibiotics as well. This is a serious problem and means that many infections and issues that could easily be solved by taking medicine will be left without a solution and pose a greater risk to human health. Cell-cultivated meat would reduce the numbers of animals that need to be raised and more easily allow for improved conditions which would not require the use of antibiotics. Furthermore, scientists who cultivate meat do not use tissue that contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

photo credit: Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

In addition to decreasing the threat of antibiotic resistance, cell-cultivated meat can reduce the spread of zoonotic diseases. Zoonotic diseases are spread, according to the Centers for Disease Control, through “coming into contact with the saliva, blood, urine, mucous, feces, or other body fluids of an infected animal. Examples include petting or touching animals, and bites or scratches.” They can also be spread through indirect contact, such as being in the same vicinity as infected animals or touching surfaces that they have come in contact with. These pathogens include viruses, parasites, bacteria, and fungi. Cell-cultivated meat would reduce the need for animal feeding operations which serve as a breeding ground for disease and require workers and staff to be in close contact with animals, especially those that are unwell. Every year, 1 in 6 Americans gets sick from eating contaminated foods. Furthermore, one of the most deadly examples of a zoonotic disease outbreak is the Coronavirus. Cell-cultivated meat could decrease the likelihood of another devastating event like this occurring. 

What Are the Disadvantages?

wind farm. photo credit: Karsten Würth on Unsplash

Lots of energy is needed

After touching on many of the advantages of cell-cultivated meat, let’s now acknowledge several important disadvantages. First, large energy inputs are currently required to manufacture cultivated meat. If fossil fuels are used to produce this energy, cultivated meat manufacturing still poses a large risk to the environment. Making cell-cultivated meat is still such a new process. For this reason, utilizing renewable energy sources may be a solution that is more feasible to implement with cell cultivation than industrialized agriculture.

Large energy inputs have another drawback: lab-grown meat production is restricted to those who have the funds and the resources to access these vast amounts of energy. Although the companies that have currently made the most progress in cultivated meat production are not the largest and wealthiest, the most resourced companies might be more equipped to take on such an endeavor as it scales up — and could be less likely to use renewable energy sources to power the process due to a history of reliance on fossil fuels. As technology progresses, the amount of energy required to produce cultivated meat is sure to decrease; it is unknown, however, by how much. Regardless, the use of renewable energy technologies will still be preferable over fossil fuels.

On the other hand, cell cultivated meat has the potential to decrease the energy inputs needed to produce meat. Industrial agriculture requires large energy inputs to raise farm animals. Apart from growing and harvesting crops, the transportation of animals to processing facilities requires energy. In addition to the transferring of animals, energy is required to slaughter, butcher, package, and distribute the meat. While some packaging and distribution is also required for cell-cultivated meat production, a significant amount of energy would be saved in the production process

It’s expensive

Another issue that exists with the production and sale of cell-cultivated meat is that it’s extremely expensive to produce right now. Cell-cultivated chicken costs $2,400 per pound to produce. Conversely, animal grown chicken costs about $4 per pound. There have already been significant reductions in production cost, and it is expected that these costs will further decrease. Regardless, it is unknown whether the price of cell-cultivated meat will be comparable to the price of animal meat. On the other hand, the increased price of cell-cultivated meat may have some advantages. The simplest way to reduce GHG emissions from meat production is to produce less meat. This will occur when the demand for meat decreases. The increased price of cell-cultivated meat may be able to encourage people to purchase less meat and as a result lessen the demand for it. 

cell-cultivated meat bioreactor at the upside foods facility. photo credit: Steve Jurvetson on flickr

It’s unfamiliar

Lastly, people are deterred by the idea of eating cell-cultivated meat because it is not “natural”. People do not love the idea of eating something that replicates animal meat but does not actually come directly from an animal. With this, there is a sentiment that cell-cultivated meat is too processed to be considered natural meat. Additionally, it is new and people worry about whether there will be safety concerns that only become apparent in the future. Another argument against cultivated meat is that it should not be produced because it is an intervention of natural processes. Interestingly, a lot of the food that we consume today in the US is quite processed. Furthermore, concentrated animal feeding operations are certainly not a “natural” way for animals to be raised. Regardless, to some, cell-cultivated meat crosses the line.  

What does this mean for the future?

Unfortunately, there are still a lot of variables, both positive and negative, that have not been addressed. One example of this is the many CAFO and supply chain workers that will need to be reemployed. There are many other nuances that come with upending a system that has been in place for so long. Meat is a large part of American culture, and changes to the way people consume meat will have to be done strategically to be widely accepted. As technologies change, and we continue to adapt to the ever-changing climate, we will decide how large of a role cell-cultivated meat can play in our future. 

Morgan Clark

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