Potentially worse for your health, planet, and wallet, is cultivated meat an expensive distraction?
In today's rapidly changing world, the quest for sustainable, nutritious, and ethical food options has become more critical than ever.
The recent approval for two companies, Upside Foods and Good Meat, to sell cell-cultivated meats in the USA raises significant questions about the future of our food system.
Is producing our food the same way we produce our drugs really the solution to our looming climate crisis?
Cell-Cultivated Meat: What is it?
Cell-cultivated or lab-grown meat is produced in laboratories from animal cells inside giant stainless-steel vats called bioreactors, the same machinery used to make vaccines.
The process involves collecting a small sample of animal cells, typically through a biopsy, and growing those cells in a highly refined cell growth media.
While some companies have developed synthetic serums to mimic blood, many others, including Upside Foods use Fetal Bovine Serum.
Fetal Bovine Serum FBS is exactly what it sounds like, a serum made from the blood of cows' unborn fetuses; not exactly the “meat without slaughter” we’ve been promised. Furthermore, it’s expensive with prices ranging from $200-$1000 per liter.
Regardless of the medium used, sterility in the production phase is paramount because unlike a living breathing cow or chicken, these cells lack an immune system. Contamination is a huge risk. If infected by a virus or bacteria you have to dump the entire batch.
Lead author and doctoral graduate Derrick Risner, UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology warns, “If this product continues to be produced using the “pharma” approach, it’s going to be worse for the environment and more expensive than conventional beef production.”
Lab Grown Meat: An Economic Nightmare
So while lab-cultivated meat presents itself as an alternative to traditional livestock farming, don’t let the buzzy headlines fool you. Over the past five years startups have raked in billions of dollars, and that’s nowhere near enough.
For years, lab grown meat companies have repeatedly missed product launch deadlines and projected unrealistic production cost decreases which have some experts asking, are these companies naive or disingenuous?
For instance, Good Food Institute, a non-profit representing the alternative protein industry, published a techno-economic analysis TEA projecting an astounding 4,000-fold reduction in production price, from $10,000 per pound to about $2.50 per pound over the next nine years.
If this sounds overly optimistic to you, you’re not wrong.
Even one of GFI’s biggest funders, Open Philanthropy was aware this sounded too good to be true. After conducting a much more comprehensive TEA of their own, they concluded cell-cultured meat would likely never be economically viable, even if technically possible, due to overwhelming scalability issues.
Building these facilities and developing the technology to move from pharmaceutical to food grade processes will require massive energy inputs and technological advances, especially in the realm of renewable energy.
Without readily available renewable energy sources most factories plan on tapping the national energy grid, exacerbating the strain on our finite resources, meant to be used for public infrastructure, not businesses geared toward producing food for the wealthiest.
Let the Rich Eat…Lab-Grown Meat
Roughly 40 million Americans don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
Despite claims that cell-cultivated meat will positively address growing economic disparity and food insecurity, the reality is it’s too expensive for the average American.
The first dishes of lab-grown chicken will be served at the Michelin-starred restaurant Bar Crenn in the Bay Area, as well as Washington D.C. based restaurant China Chilcano. To make this possible brands are incurring significant financial losses to establish artificial price points.
Given the economic realities, targeting high income clientele is a must. While many of us would never spend $50 on a lab-grown hamburger, some could be enticed into buying a more desirable cut of meat for that price, say a ribeye or a filet.
This is problematic for a few reasons. One being this energy intensive technology is being funded and scaled up largely to benefit the wealthiest in our society, not the masses.
Two being, lab-cultivated meat is an expensive distraction which has the potential to steal valuable capital away from regenerative farmers whose livelihoods depend on it. Supporting those who’re already farming in harmony with nature is one of the best investments we can make towards a healthy planet.
Cultivated Meat Isn’t Better for Our Planet
Many believers in cell-cultivated meat implore “forward thinking governments” to aggressively invest in these startups, or risk being left behind. Despite their pleas, study after study does little to inspire hope that it’s actually better for the environment.
In fact, research suggests the opposite.
A recent life-cycle assessment conducted by UC Davis researchers found that lab-grown meat’s global warming potential is likely to be, “orders of magnitude” higher than beef in the grocery store today, approximately four to 25 times worse.
Even if cultured meat production is able to shift from a “pharma to food” approach, efficient beef production systems outperformed cultured meat in terms of sustainability across nearly every scenario presented.
While industrial animal agriculture undoubtedly harms our environment and contributes to climate change, efficient beef production methods like regenerative animal agriculture actually restore health to our ecosystems far more reliably than cultivated meat.
Not to mention, grasslands, which account for roughly 40 percent of all earth’s terrestrial surface co-evolved with grazing animals like bison. Grasslands need grazers to stay healthy, and healthy grasslands sequester carbon and mitigate extreme weather patterns like fires, floods, and droughts.
Livestock are not innately destructive. The industrial practices we’ve created are.
Balancing Cultural Heritage and Sustainability
To reduce livestock and all of the valuable benefits they provide us with to just, “a slurry of cells in a lab,” greatly underestimates their cultural importance.
Globally, around 500 million pastoralists rely on livestock farming for food, income, and a slew of essential ecosystem services, like natural fertilizers. Moreso, livestock farming is a way of life which gives people a sense of identity and belonging.
For women especially, who’re denied the right of property ownership on the basis of sex, owning livestock offers a chance at financial independence and freedom.
As of March 27, 2023 Italy became the first country to formally ban cultured meat products within its borders, citing preservation of their proud culinary heritage, protection for farmers, as well as skepticism around the nutritional value of synthetic meats.
Ultra-Processed Foods: What we Know
As with any new scientifically produced food products, we don’t have long-term research on cell-cultured proteins or the impact of eating novel animal proteins cultivated in a sterile lab environment.
So, what do we know?
Experts say these cultivated-proteins could be classified as ultra-processed foods which countless studies show are linked to increased risk of chronic diseases, adverse effects on mental health, and digestive issues.
We know that the widespread consumption of “food like substances” has made us sicker.
Industrialized food systems for all their benefits (abundant calories, access to products from around the world, etc.) have a way of disconnecting us from source, and delivering us products devoid of meaningful nutritional value.Time and time again data shows eating real foods, raised in harmony with nature, are more nutritious and delicious than modern industrial agricultural products. We’re smart, but nature's systems are wiser.