A vegan and a meat-eater walk into a restaurant and each order a steak. This may sound like the beginning of a bad joke, but it may one day be a common occurrence. Although research is still in the early stages, synthetic meat technology is developing fast, and could soon be in a restaurant near you.

So, what exactly is lab-grown meat? Right now, any meat we consume requires the rearing and slaughter of animals. Cultured meat, however, is meat grown from animal cell cultures using tissue engineering technology. The process involves taking donor animal cells, treating them with proteins that promote growth in bioreactors, and growing the cells on a three-dimensional scaffold. The first lab-grown burger – created in 2013 by a team of Dutch scientists lead by Professor Mark Post – consisted of 20,000 strands of muscle tissue.

Professor Post holding a lab-grown burger

But why bother growing meat in laboratories when we can just eat farm animals? It turns out that there are quite a few benefits from growing and consuming synthetic meat over traditional animal meat.

 

Lab-grown meat is green. Not literally green, but environmentally-friendly. A Nature study published in 2004 revealed that the production of meat required up to 17 times more land and 26 times more water than growing crops, and also produced up to 20 times more fossil fuels (animal agriculture being the largest source of methane emissions in the UK). Furthermore, the UN estimates that 26% of the world’s ice-free land is used for grazing. Considering that animal agriculture is estimated to kill ten animals per hectare of land, and about 100 million hectares of land are currently used to grow crops to feed livestock, that totals ~1 billion wild animals killed to accommodate farm animals.

To contrast, lab-grown meat is only expected to generate 4% of the greenhouse gases that conventional farming produces, while only requiring 1% of the land used by the global meat industry. Moreover, the greenhouse gases produced could potentially be harvested to produce electricity, making the lab-grown meat industry self-sustaining!

Environmental impact of lab-grown meat

Furthermore, meat is not actually a particularly healthy food choice. A study looking at red meat consumption and diabetes in middle-aged women published in 2004 found a positive correlation between eating more red meat and developing type II diabetes. Meat consumption has also been associated with a higher risk of heart disease and even some forms of cancer. In addition, livestock can be hosts for disease-causing bacteria and viruses; most notable are the bird and swine flu outbreaks that have occurred over the last twenty years.  To avoid bacterial contamination, animals are often fed antibiotics, which is contributing to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria – a problem which, on average, kills one person a minute (approximately 700,000 people globally a year).

Cultured meat, however, offers solutions to both of these problems. With lab-grown meat it is possible to replace saturated fats found in conventional meat with healthier fats, like omega-3 fatty acids; these have been shown to reduce cellular inflammation, which plays a role in developing multiple chronic illnesses. It is also possible to lower the amount of other harmful substances found in normal meat, like heme iron, which is only found in the blood proteins from the flesh of meat and has been linked to multiple cancers and type II diabetes. Cultured meat would be grown in sterile environments, avoiding exposure to harmful bacteria and viruses and making it safer for human contact and consumption, reinforcing how much safer the production of lab-grown meat is.

 

Ethically, lab-grown meat is far preferable to the unethical treatment of livestock. In the early 1960s, a chicken would take approximately 63 days to reach slaughter weight. 30 years later, that number dropped to 38 days, thanks to artificial genetic selection, by creating a new breed of chicken – broiler. However, broiler chickens have a plethora of health problems. Their legs are often deformed, they are more susceptible to skin diseases, and heart attacks are more common. When breeding cows, calves are separated from their mothers immediately after birth and locked inside tiny cages. The calf will spend its whole life in the same cage, prohibited from walking or playing with other calves in order to ensure softer muscles and more tender meat. The first time a calf will walk is often on the way to the slaughterhouse. A wild cow can potentially live for twenty-five years, but calves, on average, are slaughtered at just four months.

Lab-grown meat, however, could theoretically be grown without killing any animals. Some scientists believe that under ideal conditions, it will be possible to grow over 45,000,000 kilograms of lab-grown meat in two months using just 10 donor muscle cells from pigs. Memphis Meat, a food technology company, is already using large steel tanks filled with self-regenerating animal cells to grow beef, chicken, and duck. After harvesting the initial animal cells, lab-grown meat will be cruelty-free.

Given how unlikely it will be to stop every meat-eater on Earth from consuming meat, our best alternative is lab-grown meat. The technology has a way to go yet – the current price of a lab-grown quarter pounder is around £460 – but considering that in 2013 that same burger would have cost you £250,000, rapid progress is being made. As for taste, an Austrian food researcher and critic, Hanni Ruetzler, said the following regarding the first lab-grown burger: ‘I was expecting the texture to be soft[er]…there is some quite intense taste; it’s close to meat, but it’s not that juicy. The consistency is perfect, but I miss salt and pepper.’ Perhaps not what you’d want to hear after dishing out a quarter of a million pounds for a burger. However, the first lab-grown burger contained no fat. As scientists develop ways to grow the muscle, fat, and connectivity tissue found in traditional meat, the taste will likely improve, and salt and pepper can always be added!

So, cleaner, greener, leaner meat? I’ll bite.