Forget lab rats, could lab cows (well, lab meat) be the future of our sustainable food? I am a meat eater in an age of growing veganism. I have pretty much eliminated red meat from my diet and often choose vegetarian options when out, but I still love chicken. Could lab grown meat be the answer to our reduced carbon footprint, better sustainability, low costing and cruelty free prayers?
We all know we need to drastically reduce our carbon-footprints to help tackle climate change. Food production is a focus point, accounting for roughly 1/4 of global carbon emissions. Animal based foods have a higher footprint than plant-based foods; for example, beef production uses 20 times the land space and produces 20 times the emissions when compared to bean production for the same protein content, and one cow alone consumes ~11,000 gallons of water a year. Overall beef, lamb, goat and pork have higher footprints than animals such as chickens, because they release methane (i.e. they fart a lot) which is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG). The carbon footprint of food is described as “the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that result from energy, fertiliser, and land use involved in growing food”. Just switching from red meat to chicken can halve your carbon footprint as chicken is much more carbon-light (i.e. less CO2 is involved in the production of chicken and white meat).
What if we could have meat which is more sustainable, with lower costs, a reduced carbon footprint and no cruelty? Science fiction? Lab-grown meat (or cultured meat) could change this. In 2011, researchers from Cambridge University and the University of Amsterdam found that cultured meat could potentially be produced with up to 96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 45% less energy, 99% lower land use, and 96% lower water use when compared to conventional meat. Their calculations were based on a scale-up of production at the time. The team suggested that land could be re-claimed for forests and wild meadows etc, and their calculation didn’t account for any reduction in transportation or refrigeration costs. However 8 years on, why isn’t it already on shelves?
Companies such as Finless Foods and Just have led the way for commercially lab-grown meat. For example, Finless Foods take a small amount of fish meat and filter it for a particular kind of cell, stem-like cells, which they’ve termed progenitor cells. They trick such cells into thinking they’re still in their owner by feeding them nutrients such as salts and sugars. Finless Foods have been able to get the cells to turn into muscles, fat or connective tissue, whilst food company Just has announced its lab-grown chicken nuggets could be in restaurants soon. In the UK, researchers at the University of Bath are also now developing cultured meat from pig cells, which could one day lead to entirely slaughter free bacon. They too extract stem cells from tissue taken from a pig, then grow it in a bioreactor forming muscle fibres on scaffolds made from grass! However, you need thousands of these fibres to form the final bacon.
One major problem of cultured meat is the need for fetal bovine serum (FBS), which is currently used as a growth serum for almost all lab grown meat. FBS is harvested from calve fetuses and you need a lot to make it work. This costs a lot, it’s still bad for GHGs, and it’s definitely not cruelty free. However, Multus Media have achieved the growth of lab-meat without FBS. They managed this milestone by genetically altering yeast to produce the complex proteins required for the growth medium, removing the need for FBS. Multus Media‘s overall aim is to develop “cheap, animal-free and sustainable culture media* that will accelerate our fight against climate change & can be used to grow mammalian cells in research settings too.” (*Culture media is just a scientific way of saying where we grow the cells and what nutrients they need.)
Although research has been ongoing for almost a decade, there are still plenty of hurdles to overcome before lab-meat makes it to the supermarket. One such issue is taste which comes mostly from fat. This is difficult to replicate as fat and muscle cells don’t grow well together in the lab. Even if they nailed the taste, the biggest question is still “is it actually better for the environment?” One study found that the energy required to make lab meat may only cut GHG emissions by 7% for steak and beef etc., and may actually produce 4-5x more GHG than chicken or pork already do. Very few studies have looked rigorously at the environmental pros and cons of in vitro meat production (i.e. grown in a lab). As with all new technology, much more research is required. Watch this space…