Lab-grown, or cultured, meat is being heralded as an ethical, climate-saving alternative to traditional meat. But what if it isn’t safe, and what if its carbon footprint exceeds that of grass-fed animals? Read on and find out what the science is now showing us.
It’s no longer science fiction, it’s here: the US government approved lab-grown meat for sale in the US last November. While we might still be some years away from these products entering our supermarkets, now’s the right time to take a critical look at them before we decide to dine on them in a restaurant – or feed them to our growing children. We also need to understand more about whether or not we should believe the claims being shouted from Big Food Tech’s rooftops telling us over and over again: lab-grown meat is a more ethical choice and far better for the environment than raising animals for slaughter. While the lab-grown meat sales pitch might sound like the heralding of a new era where we can eat healthy, clean animal protein-based food without having to kill animals, all while saving the environment, it’s our assessment that most of the claims being made are illusory.
The FDA and the USDA share responsibility for regulating lab-grown meat products. In 2022, the FDA completed voluntary reviews of lab-grown meat from UPSIDE Food and Good Meat, concluding that the products were safe to eat. The USDA, which must routinely inspect all commercially-sold meat and poultry, just recently issued grants of inspection to these companies, clearing the way for these products to be sold to consumers. Initially, lab-grown meat will only be launched in two high-end restaurants. It is not expected to be in supermarkets anytime soon because it is very far from being cost competitive with real meat (more on this below).
Growing meat from stem cells
Lab-grown meat (also referred to as cultured, cultivated, or cell-based meat) is developed from animal stem cells. Different companies use different techniques, but generally animal stem cells are added to massive bioreactors along with a broth-like mixture of amino acids, fatty acids, sugars, salts, and vitamins to help the cells grow. The cells proliferate quickly in the calibrated environment of these tanks—called cultivators—creating sheets of poultry cells that are then removed from the tanks and formed into cutlets, sausages, and other foods.
As much as the food industry doesn’t want you to know this, the process of creating lab-grown meat relies on ‘genetic engineering’ or GE. While the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute wants us to restrict the GE term to “laboratory-based technologies [that] alter the DNA makeup of an organism,” we believe it should be just as applicable to gene-editing techniques that involve the deliberate alteration of the genetic makeup of pluripotent cells like stem cells.
To produce a sufficient volume of meat, cells in the cultivators need to multiply and grow a substantial amount, but, in nature, a cell’s ability to replicate is limited. Genetic engineering of the cells increases their ability to replicate or even make the cells “immortal” so that they can replicate over and over again. One of the companies, UPSIDE Foods (formerly called Memphis Meats) owns a patent detailing a way to use CRISPR gene-editing to allow animal cells to replicate indefinitely. To the health-conscious consumer, this should raise a massive red flag in terms of the safety of eating meat developed from gene-edited cells that exhibit some of the characteristics of cancerous cells.
It’s not equivalent!
Supporters claim that lab-grown meat is biologically the same as meat. This simply isn’t true, particularly from a nutritional perspective. Just as pasture-raised meat is nutritionally different than beef from a factory farm, lab-grown meat will also be different. Yes, lab-grown meat is made from animal cells, but it’s not just about protein: it’s the composition and nature of the protein as well as the fats, minerals, vitamins, and other compounds found in meat.
There’s still a lot we don’t know because lab-grown meat hasn’t been around for long enough and in quantities sufficient to allow researchers to perform in-depth analyses, but one review of the topic in 2020 pointed out that essential fatty acids like alpha-linolenic acid that are present in meat are likely missing from cultured meat. What about arachidonic acid? And then the complex of naturally-occurring micronutrients like zinc, selenium, and vitamin B12, all present in meat.
Some, but probably not all, of the macro- and micro-nutrients found in meat are given to cells in the cultivators to support growth. But we don’t yet know enough much about the uptake of these nutrients in the final product to know how it compares to meat.
As our founder and Executive Director Rob Verkerk, PhD has said, “Creating a new food in a lab and expecting it to have the same impact on health as a form of eating that’s been with us since the dawn of our species could be regarded as an example of kooky thinking.” He added recently, “Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking, driven by a desire for a global mass market that’s been created by science that’s been deliberately warped by misinterpreting the environmental impact of meat eating through a blinkered climate change lens.” For more about that, check out Dr Verkerk’s blistering report exposing the EAT-Lancet study and ‘planetary diet’ from 2019 led by Prof. Walter Willett.
Slaughter-free meat it isn’t
While lab-grown meat is being billed as a slaughter-free alternative to meat, that’s not entirely accurate either. Many of the major companies pursuing lab-grown meat add fetal bovine serum (FBS) to the mixture in the cultivators to help cells grow and proliferate. FBS is extracted from unborn cow fetuses after the mother is slaughtered. The cultured meat industry is trying to replace FBS, as it is one of the factors that makes lab-grown meat so expensive to produce: just one pound of lab-grown meat costs roughly $17 to produce at the factory, which would look more like $40 per pound at the grocery store. This and other issues related to scalability mean that we aren’t likely to see price-competitive lab-grown meat until about 2030, with some experts saying it will never be economical.
Carbon footprint vs cattle hoofprint
Supporters of the lab-grown meat industry also want us to believe that growing sheets of meat in a lab is more environmentally friendly than industrialized meat production. While factory farms and the meat-packing industry couldn’t be further from the regenerative agricultural practices ANH-USA supports, a recent study from the University of California, Davis, found that lab-grown meat’s carbon footprint is potentially greater than retail beef. Further, as our colleagues at ANH-International have pointed out, consumption of meat per se isn’t the problem when it comes to the environment—it’s the industrialized factory farm system. Sustainably-raised livestock and associated pasture actually helps sequester carbon in the soil.
Follow the money
How come the messaging doesn’t seem to fit well with the emerging science? To get a handle on this, a good starting point is looking at who is backing lab-grown meat companies. Tyson Foods, the largest meatpacking company in the US, is an investor in UPSIDE Foods; JBS and Cargill, other giants in the meatpacking industry, have also invested in lab-grown meat. The success of lab-grown meat will only enrich the profits of some of the largest factory farmers in the business. Bill Gates is also an investor in lab-grown meat in addition to plant-based meat. Gates famously said that rich countries should switch to synthetic meat—a move from which he stands to gain massively.
To recap: don’t let anyone tell you lab-grown meat isn’t genetically engineered, or that the long-term human health effects of eating these products is known; it will not be nutritionally equivalent to pasture-raised meat; it is not slaughter-free as it often involves the use of FBS; it is not as environmentally-friendly as its supporters would have us believe; and those pushing for lab-grown meat are some of the largest agri-businesses in the world, and they now have a strong political and financial alignment with Bill Gates.
Simply put, when it comes to lab-grown meat, please consider making an informed choice rather than a choice influenced by an incredibly well-oiled and misleading propaganda machine.
Our ask is a simple one: please share this article among your friends, family and wider network, and help balance the propaganda about lab-grown meat.