In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the production and sale of chicken meat by two companies—Upside Foods and Good Meat—who will each initially partner with a restaurant (Upside with Bar Crenn in San Francisco, and Good Meat with José Andrés' China Chilcano in the nation’s capital) with the hope of ultimately marketing other lab-grown meats and making them all available in supermarkets and restaurants.
The USDA decision makes the United States the second country, after Singapore, to legalize what its backers call cultivated or cultured meat, a significant boost to an industry that just a decade ago was purely science fiction. Today, it’s being developed by upwards of 150 companies to the tune of $896 million in investment in 2022 alone.
But what is cultured meat, and why are so many people so interested in it?
How is cultured meat made?
Cultured meat is “taking cells from animals that normally produce meat for us and using those cells as the powerhouse to grow the meat outside of the animal,” explains David Kaplan, director of the Tufts University Center for Cellular Agriculture.
Adds Claire Bomkamp, lead scientist for cultivated meat and seafood with the Good Food Institute, it is “the same thing as traditional meat” but with “the animal taken out of the equation.”
The first step to creating cultured meat is to procure animal cells, often via biopsy from an animal—either living or recently slaughtered—or by extracting cells from a fertilized egg. These cells are placed in culture media to encourage them to multiply; but if you’re imagining a bunch of scientists hunched over petri dishes, think bigger.
“Picture something more like brewing beer,” suggests Kaplan; “you’re talking scales that are very, very large.”
These cells may be stem cells, with the ability to develop into almost any part of an animal; others may be what are known as satellite cells, which regenerate and repair muscles. Some cells can reproduce perhaps 30-50 times before a new biopsy is required. The Holy Grail, which Kaplan and others are developing, is “immortalized” cells, which either through genetic manipulation or mutation are able to proliferate indefinitely without needing further fresh animal tissue.
The result, in theory, is a product that looks, smells, tastes, and feels like the meat you’re used to consuming—in endless supply.
If you find the idea of eating meat grown in a lab a dubious proposition, don’t worry; you’re not alone.
“I mean, I was definitely skeptical when I first heard of it,” admits Bomkamp. “I was working in a cell culture lab at the time and l thought, ‘You want me to eat the cells? No thanks.’ I thought about it more, and then I realized it was something that could have a lot of benefits.”
The case for cultured meat
Worldwide, an estimated 70 billion land animals are slaughtered for food each year—the total significantly skewed by chickens, which account for the great majority. (Approximately 300 million cattle are killed annually.) Eighty percent of sows raised in pork production in the United States live their lives in tiny gestation crates too small for them to even turn around.
The environmental impact of feeding all those animals can be enormous. Sixty-seven percent of crops grown in the U.S. each year do not directly feed people but are fed to livestock —acres upon acres of land set side to grow food to feed to our food. Agricultural pollution can affect surface water and groundwater; and animal agriculture is responsible for 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
In theory, cultured meat could solve many or all those problems; and advocates tout other potential benefits.
Kaplan, for example, points out that because cultured meat can theoretically be grown anywhere, countries would no longer have to import as much food.
Plus, “because the technology allows much more control of the inputs and outputs, you could, for example, have fat cells with a healthier fatty acid composition, and you can reduce the use of antibiotics and other chemicals in food,” he says.
Bomkamp notes that meat consumption could become far more varied the meats commonly eaten today—“we could eat things that aren't common today, because they're not practical to farm,” she observes—and cultured meat could also allow the consumption of, for example, bluefin tuna without depleting wild populations.
Is there a downside to lab meat?
If all this seems too good to be true, critics argue that it is.
Marco Springmann, an environmental scientist at the University of Oxford told CNBC that the amount of energy required for the production process is so great that cultured meat has five times the carbon footprint of chicken. Religious scholars are still wrestling with the issue of whether cultured meat can ever truly be halal or kosher. And plenty of vegans, who might be expected to be a key constituency, have ethical objections.
On a practical level, taste and smell are reportedly all but indistinguishable from the real thing, but there remain some kinks in getting the texture just right.
Lab-grown meat is also expensive. Per-unit costs are presently significantly higher than the traditional alternative—according to one analysis, lab-grown beef may be eight times as expensive to produce—although they have plummeted since the first lab-grown burger a decade ago.
Kaplan, however, is relatively unconcerned by the cost issue, confident that it will decrease as the industry develops. The biggest practical challenge right now, he says, is how to produce enough product to stock restaurant kitchens and grocery aisles.
“I think no one on the planet has ever dealt with scaling this kind of biological technology,” he says. “We need really creative new solutions to get to the scales that are required.”
Bomkamp is passionate about the budding industry’s potential and thinks the more people actually try lab-grown meat, the more normal it will feel.
“Maybe at first people will think about trying cultivated chicken as this crazy experience, and certainly the media has made it sound like this weird new science-y thing,” she says. “But ultimately, it’s just chicken.”