There’s been increasing attention on cultured meat recently.
On one hand, cultured meat products might reduce some of the environmental and animal cruelty concerns with conventional farm agriculture. It’s also steadily becoming more affordable to produce.
On the other hand, skeptics of cultured meat might point to the cost, scaling and regulatory challenges of producing cultured meat, as well as the possibilities that the public never fully embrace it, and that we may not actually need it if we spend the time and money to improve our current food production systems and consumer behavior first.
In this guide, we list a wide range of the pros and cons of cultured meat, so it can be better understood how cultured meat might play a role in the future.
(* Note – cultured meat is also referred to as lab grown meat, and clean meat for marketing purposes (or several other names). These names generally refer to products that use cellular agriculture over conventional agriculture)
Summary – Pros and Cons Of Lab Grown Meat
- Can help meet demands of a growing population
- Can help address world hunger
- Can help minimize the negative effects and animal cruelty issues of livestock agriculture
- Could free up space and resources for other uses
- Lab grown meat produces meat specifically (not bones, organs etc. like livestock agriculture does)
- Technology for lab grown meat is consistently improving
- Potential to have an animal origin free in the future
- Might make use of renewable energy in the future
- Lab grown meat can be modified for beneficial purposes
- Some cultured meat can be produced far quicker than conventional farming
- Can minimize some risks associated with animal farming
- Can produce more consistent meats, and more consistent quality meats
- Can add jobs to the economy
- May be available in supermarkets soon
- Some prices are steadily getting more affordable
- The need for lab grown meat is questioned – given that we already produce enough food for the world’s population
- The causes of world hunger are caused by different problems compared to the solutions that lab grown meat presents
- Currently not affordable for everyone – production cost has been a major barrier thus far
- There are possibly better, cheaper and more effective ways to produce food for the human population
- If focusing on decreasing air pollution and greenhouse gases – focusing on improvements in the energy generation and transport sectors could be smarter and more effective
- Lab grown meat does not yet prevent the exploitation of animals
- Lab grown meat is currently no different to growing feed for livestock (which is very inefficient)
- The positive impact of land based agriculture is probably not talked about enough
- Some sustainable, organic, open pasture and other types of livestock farming may actually be better environmentally and from a sustainability perspective compared to lab grown meat
- Lab grown meat has some of the same ethical concerns as GMOs
- The taste of some lab grown meat products is not to some people’s liking at this point in time
- Proper nutrition can be a question for some lab grown meat products
- May remove existing land based livestock agriculture jobs from the economy
- Some people just don’t have a preference for lab grown meat
- Lab grown meat can use a lot of resources and have a significant environmental footprint in some instances
- Some people argue that investment in lab grown meat should be put into plant based and vegetarian type diets which have a higher feeding capacity and provide many benefits meats do not
- There might be future potential issues over marketing, labeling and regulations around lab grown meat
- Plant based artificial meat faces some current challenges
*Note – these are just general pros and cons of lab grown meat. Ultimately, the final pros and cons are going to come from the individual lab grown meat producer and sellers (how they source, produce, deliver, and sell their products). Comparing lab grown meat to conventional types of livestock agriculture, and also diets heavier in plant based food, will give us a good idea of the best strategy for providing food for society in the long term.
Pros Of Lab Grown/Cultured Meat (Benefits)
- Meet demands of population growth – the world population is expected to grow to between 10 to 13 billion people between the years 2050 and 2100. Lab grown meat is seen by some as another form of food we can use to feed these extra people from the 7.7 billion that are living on earth right now.
- Help address world hunger – There are still hundreds of millions of people in the world that don’t have access to food at all, or don’t have enough food. This number is expected to increase to billions in the coming years. Lab grown meat is seen as one way to create more food to feed the world’s people that still go hungry
- Minimise negative effects of livestock agriculture (environmental, sustainable use of resources, moral/ethical) – there are environmental, sustainability and animal ethics/morality effects of livestock agriculture. Use of land and water is a sustainability concern (we would presumably save a lot of land and water via irrigation and other uses by switching to primarily lab grown meats), and there are pollution concerns to soil, air and water sources from fertilizers, pesticides, manure, greenhouse gases and general degradation of fertile top soil and land. Deforestation (loss of trees), loss of biodiversity, and land degradation are issues. Animals themselves burp and fart out methane. There are also cruelty and morality concerns with farming animals for food and animal products. Although lab grown meat still uses animal origin growth mediums, some say the amount of animals that suffer in total, and how much they suffer, is greatly reduced with lab grown meat. Some studies say lab grown meat uses up to 96 percent less water and 99 percent less land and produces up to 96 percent less greenhouse gas (eatingwell.com). Other sources indicate ‘the market share of traditional meat will drop to 40% in relation to synthetics over the next 20 years, resulting in a reduction in the number of cows from 1.2 billion to 30,000 worldwide (forbes.com). A reduction in the number of cows is also a reduction in things like cow burps, cow farts, cow manure – all of which produce emissions or pollutants in some way, shape or form.
- Would free up space and resources for other uses – related to the last point, the land we save, the water we save, and the resources we save, could all be funneled into other uses. We would be more efficient and effective.
- Lab grown meat produces meat directly, without other parts of the animal body – lab grown meat is cultured to grow just the meat, and not the bones, organs, and other parts of livestock that we usually don’t want for prime meat cuts. In this way, the resources put into lab grown meat are being used more efficiently
- Technology is developing and getting better, and may help solve more problems in the future with more investment – it is expected that as lab grown meat technology advances and gets better/cheaper, the meat products will get cheaper, and may also present more solutions to current problems we have with food supply, livestock farming etc. Once the technology is perfected it will be indistinguishable in taste and texture from real meat (and will be cheaper to produce and purchase)
- Lab grown meat may be animal origin free in the future – if advances can be made with genetic engineering and using plant based materials and cells. Hybrid plant origin clean meat is a realistic option in the future
- Cultured meat labs and factories might be able to make use of renewable energy in the future – there isn’t a lot of data released about how energy intensive (in terms of power and electricity used) it is to culture meat. But, it’s conceivable that in the future, at least a partial supply of electricity used could be renewable (such as solar, wind, water etc.)
- Some cultured meat can be grown far quicker than conventional farming – ‘Cultured cells double in number every few days, meaning that cultured meat could also be produced far quicker than conventional meat … [and some start ups] claim that [they] can produce a batch of cultured steaks within three weeks, a much shorter timeframe than the two years it takes to grow a cow (idtechex.com)
- Lab grown meat can be modified for beneficial reasons, such as healthier and cleaner food options – producers can control the fat and protein content. They can also control the taste and other features like whether it is boneless. If we take fat for example, lab grown meat could be produced to contain more omega-3 fatty acids and less harmful fats. This is sometimes referred to as a ‘cleaner’ meat than livestock farmed meat
- Lab grown meat can minimise some risks associated with animal farming – such as animal diseases, antibiotics, and growth hormones
- Lab grown meat can be more consistent in terms of quality – because more is in the producer’s control, lab grown meat may be of a particular standard/quality more consistently compared to farm grown meat which can vary in quality.
- Lab grown meat adds existing jobs to the economy – lab and factory workers, researchers, scientists etc.
- Cultured meat products may be available in supermarkets soon – some may see this as a pro, and some a con, depending on how they view cultured meat products. But, ‘the first cultured meat products are expected to appear in supermarkets as soon as 2021’ (forbes.com)
Cons Of Lab Grown/Cultured Meat (Disadvantages)
- We can already the world’s population without lab grown meat – We can already feed a population of 10 billion people with the world’s current food production supply.
- The causes of world hunger are political, economical and logistical, and lab grown meat does nothing to change that – poverty, and lack of infrastructure, technology and resources (to grow food, deliver/transport food, and keep it fresh until it gets to market) in developing countries is the main reason for world hunger. Lab grown meat has little to do with it.
- Lab grown meat is currently not affordable for everyone, and has high production costs – currently, the production cost of cultured meat in a lab is expensive compared to the amount of meat it can produce i.e. it can’t be grown or produced affordably with any type of scale required for mass consumption. However, new investors and companies are currently trying to make the costs much more affordable by taking the process from the lab to a manufacturing facility, and making a new biomass product for $10 a pound, and $4 a pound for a plant-based meat substitute (techcrunch.com). [What is also clear, is that cultured meat is decreasing in cost per pound over time, and there are some optimistic views that with new factors such as a more efficient bioreactor and a distributed manufacturing model, cellular agriculture will become very competitive with animal and traditional agriculture] (fastcompany.com)
- There are other possibly better, cheaper and more effective alternatives regarding food supply for the present and future than putting time and money into lab grown meat – some argue that moving towards more plant based diets (or diets with less meat, dairy and animal products) make better use of resources, and are cheaper, more effective, quicker to implement and healthier than what lab grown meat can offer as a food source (both in the present and future). We also already have several plant based meat substitutes on the market such as various types of vegan or vegetarian patties and steaks.
- When considering greenhouse gases/climate change, and other forms of pollution, focussing on improvements outside of food is probably more effective – agriculture only produces about 9% of total greenhouse gas emissions in some countries. Comparatively, transport, electricity generation, and industry produce almost 80% of total GHGs combined (theconversation.com). If there is concern over GHG emissions and other environmental issues – it makes far more sense to focus on these sectors first, rather than food and agriculture. Although methane and nitrous oxide are generally most abundant from agricultural activities
- Lab grown meat does not yet prevent exploitation of animals – currently, harvesting of animal cells to culture and by using the blood of foetuses from slaughtered pregnant cows as the growth medium, are required to grow lab meat. So, to mass-produce laboratory-grown meat on an ongoing basis, scientists would need a constant supply of live pigs, cows, chickens and other animals from which to take cells. Until an option is developed that doesn’t require animal origin cells (such as genetic modification to synthesise it), lab grown meat isn’t cruelty or animal exploitation free.
- Lab grown meat is currently no different to growing feed for livestock, which is very inefficient – lab grown meat needs growth medium from animals, and livestock need feed from crops. Both methods of food production involve inefficient energy conversion. In both cases, instead of feeding humans directly, resources are being diverted to another food source that will eventually feed humans. This is an unnecessary waste of energy, resources and time.
- The positive impact of livestock agriculture is potentially not talked about enough – livestock can make use of land that we might not be able to use for crops or other food production, and we are able to get more than just meat from livestock. We can produce milk, macro- and micronutrients, fibers, hides, skins, fertilizer and fuel; and [livestock] are used for transportation, draft power, a source of income, and a form of banking for millions of smallholder farmers in developing countries. In addition, there are more sustainable and ethical forms of agriculture than the mass intensive CAFCO farms you might hear about in the US. To say animal agriculture is all bad is inaccurate. Read more about the products made from just cattle alone at https://theconversation.com/why-cows-are-getting-a-bad-rap-in-lab-grown-meat-debate-103716
- Some sustainable or organic livestock farming may be better environmentally than lab grown meat – ‘the Swedish organic method of raising cows on pastures with low fertilizer input had some of the mildest long-term impacts on global warming, though some lab grown meat processes gave it a run for its money and even bested it. The American approach to beef production, though, was consistently the worst climate-wise’ (earther.gizmodo.com)
- Similar ethical concerns to GMO crops – some people don’t trust GMO companies and a future with heavily genetically engineered food. There can be a lack of trust between consumers and companies – and rightfully so – people want to keep these companies accountable. The same trust and accountability issues may face lab grown meat as is currently facing GMO food.
- Taste – the first lab grown meat patties made were allegedly not great tasting or essentially tasteless. Some lab grown meat producers may take some time before they perfect the taste of their product
- Nutrition – it’s great to be able to say that lab grown meat can be modified to control things like fat and protein content. But, overall nutrition is important too. There are certain nutrients we may only be able to get in bulk from natural agriculture outside a lab
- Lab grown meat may remove some existing jobs from the economy – such as livestock farming, butchers etc.
- Some people are turned off by the sound of lab grown meat – convincing some people to eat meat grown in a lab may be difficult in the short and long term. It’s unknown if some groups or cultures of people would ever accept it.
- Lab grown meat can use a lot of resources, and isn’t completely eco friendly or lacking an environmental footprint – lab grown meat needs about 50 litres of growth medium to produce a single beef burger, and probably uses a lot of energy for the factories/labs that produce it (veganaustralia.org.au). Unless some of the energy used is renewable energy, there could be greenhouse gas emissions
- Some people and groups believe that meat is an unhealthier option long term than plant based foods – there’s studies that link meats to various diseases. And, unhealthy chemicals and antibiotics are used in some meats. Some question whether it’s right to keep investing in and promoting heavily meat based diets. Some people argue that a diet of vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, nuts and seeds contains all the essential nutrients we need
- Potential issues over marketing, labelling of lab grown meat – the FDA and other organisations have met to discuss the labelling of lab grown meat in the past. One issue could be how lab grown meats are allowed to be labelled and marketed by companies. How do consumers really know what they are getting when they buy different lab grown meat products? This is an issue also currently facing GMO foods – people want to know what is in the foods they are buying and how it’s made – and labelling or lack of product information can prevent this, or even mislead buyers.
- Potential issues over regulation – related to the point above, the process behind food regulation takes a long time. This could impact how quickly quality and safety among all products are standardised
- Plant based artificial meat faces some current challenges – ‘Despite rapid growth, plant-based meat still has less than 1% market share of the US meat industry and struggles to replicate meat products beyond unstructured products such as burgers, nuggets and ground beef. Plant-based meat producers have struggled with scale up and price parity with meat remains out of reach’ (idtechex.com)