What Is Lab Grown Meat?
Lab grown meat, including beef and chicken, is made from stem cells, the building blocks of the animal's muscles and other organs. Stem cells are taken from a "donor" animal and then placed in petri dishes, along with amino acids and carbohydrates to help the muscle cells multiply and grow. After enough cells have grown they're transferred to larger laboratory vessels where the muscle fibers and fat cells begin to grow, resulting in a substance that looks very much like ground meat.
Taste tests involving hamburgers made from both traditional and lab meat have shown that most people can't tell the difference between the two. It all sounds like the something from a Star Trek episode, where we get our food from a "replicator", yet it's now possible and is being scaled up for mass production. Singapore just became the first country in the world to approve the sale of lab grown "chicken nuggets". Many people are just now hearing about this incredible technology, yet the first lab grown hamburger was developed in 2012, at a cost of $325,000. Now you can buy chicken nuggets, grown in a lab in Singapore, for the equivalent of $20 for a quarter pound. That cost is expected to fall quickly as the scale of production ramps up.
This technology poses a number of interesting questions. Is this meat vegan or vegetarian, and is it environmentally friendly? There are also religious implications, as many cultures have specific requirements for the butchering meat, according to centuries old traditions. What about farmers and ranchers? Will this technology eventually put them out of business? Already we're seeing many family dairy farms go out of business due to competition from milk substitutes such as almond "milk".
Is Lab Grown Meat Vegan or Environmentally Friendly?
Lab grown meat is grown from donor cells obtained from living animals, Since vegan is defined as involving no animal products in the chain of production, lab grown meat is certainly not vegan. As far as being animal-friendly however, except for the prick of a needle in obtaining the very first "donor cells", no animals would be harmed in the process of growing meat in a lab or factory.
Laboratory or factory grown meat is possibly more environmentally friendly than traditional meat. Lab grown meat requires approximately 45% less energy to produce, requires 99% less land for production, and reportedly produces 96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional meat. Since lab meat is grown with components made from vegetables such as soy, these could be grown organically and sustainably, but would the end product still be considered "organic"?
Personally I welcome any alternative ways of producing food for the billions of humans on the planet that are more sustainable and cause less cruelty to living creatures. Still, I have my own reservations about lab grown meat.
If you have ever seen the sprawling, malodorous feedlots of the Midwest, where thousands of animals live in crowded conditions and forced to walk around in their own excrement, you may also welcome the alternative of lab grown meat as a more humane option. Those same feedlots and farms however, are a source of livelihood for thousands of people not only in the US, but across the globe. If their jobs disappear in a short period of time due to a rapid up-scaling of the lab meat industry, then it could have serious implications for America's heartland and beyond.
Other Ethical Questions About Lab Grown Meat
One question that comes to my own mind is "how far will we take this?" It's now technically possible to clone and grow endangered white rhino meat, but would eating that be morally acceptable? What about traditional companion animals, such as dogs and cats? Their flesh is already consumed in many countries around the world, as shocking as that may seem to most people in North America.
Could the suffering of so many traditional companion animals be eliminated if those people already eating them switched to a lab grown equivalent, or would this create a further demand and "taste" for that sort of trade? Taking it a bit further, we already know that it's possible, so would lab grown human flesh, if someone was so inclined to want to eat it, ever be allowed? Even if it were banned in the US, would some people travel to foreign countries where you could take part in eco-friendly, non-murder-based cannibalism, just for the "adventure" of it? Unfortunately, I think I already know the answer.
We live in a time where ethical questions such as these are no longer the thing of science fiction novels. Humanity must begin to seriously discuss the ethical and moral issues that surround technologies such as lab grown meats. As a species, we should agree on a global standard of ethical behavior for the creation of laboratory grown meats, just as we've already done with the subject of human cloning, where international laws now prohibit the practice.
My own take on all of this is that just because we can do things like make meat in a lab, doesn't mean we should, not until we have some serious debate about the ethics of the process. Having tried some of the new vegetarian meat substitutes, such as the "Beyond Meat" burgers, I won't be rushing out to buy my first lab-grown burger when it becomes available. Whether or not they're any healthier than real meat, plant based meat alternatives are constantly improving and even still fool some people with their realistic taste. Unlike lab grown meat, I can still wrap my head around how plant based meat substitutes are made, and from what.
Would you eat lab grown meat yourself? Please take the poll at the end of this article and share your opinion.
Sources: GFC Global "What is Lab Grown Meat"
Scienceline. "The Truth About Lab Grown Meat".
Poll: Would You Eat Lab Grown Meat?
E Randall from Florida on December 23, 2020:
Thank you for posting this, I try to stay away from anything that is GMO.