Meat-like substitutes made from plant-based ingredients and even simulated meat using plant cells to mimic the cellular structure of animal products have been on the market for years. However, there is yet another trend emerging in the synthetic meat trend: cellular agriculture. This new technology uses animal cells to grow meat in a lab—no animal needed.
Scientists isolate cells from an animal then, in the lab, feed the cells nutrients like salts and sugars so that they think they’re still a part of their owner. This way, the cells can grow into muscle, fat, or connective tissue.
Don’t worry—you haven’t accidentally tried this stuff, because it’s not yet on the market. Yes, there are some safety concerns, which is probably one reason why it hasn’t been approved. Another reason: cost. In 2013, the first lab-grown burger costed $325,000 to make. Costs have come down significantly since then, and cellular agriculture is expected to be financially viable by the end of this year. There are currently at least 10 cellular agriculture companies fervently trying to get this stuff on the market.
While there has been some heated debate between the FDA and USDA as to who will regulate this new market, the FDA declared their jurisdiction over lab-grown meat last month. Despite the USDA’s objection to this decision, the FDA is planning to hold a public meeting this Thursday, July 12 on “Foods Produced Using Animal Cell Culture Technology” to solicit input and feedback.
More importantly than initial safety and cost concerns, there are ecological implications for isolating meat production to a lab. First off, we are missing out on beneficial environmental impact from animals, who were put on this earth for a reason—and it wasn’t just to feed humans. Animals—especially ruminants like cattle, goats, buffalo, sheep, and deer—are ecological regulators. Their manure serves as a highly effective fertilizer for the land, and their hooves as powerful soil aerators.
Also, growing specific cuts of meat from isolated cells means we are missing out on the benefits of using the whole animal. There are plenty of delicious, nutrient-dense cuts of meat that are often discarded including liver, heart, tongue, hoof, brain, tripe, bone, and marrow. Our ancestors prized these cuts as they realized the value of nutrients as well as the value of honoring the whole animal.
Lab-grown meat companies claim they are more efficient for not growing these cuts that most people don’t eat. However, one of the few studies done on this subject has shown “in vitro” meat in a lab might be more energy-intensive than even conventional cattle farming.
In short, replacing factory farming with industrial equivalents in a resource-intensive indoor lab is not the answer. Our vote? Investing time and money into education that will drive lasting change. If we increase awareness about food waste, we won’t have to produce as much food in the first place. If we spread the word about regenerative agriculture, farmers and consumers will realize that the land is on our side.
When we isolate specific cells in a lab to recreate muscle meat, we are promoting industrialization at the expense of tradition and potential for land regeneration.
Looking at meat as just “a piece of meat” is inhumane and oversimplified. Animals raised holistically on pasture, fed their natural diet, and slaughtered humanely cannot be recreated in a lab. Why? Because their impact is much more than a lean cut of steak. They leave behind a kindred connection to their herd and farmer, fertilizer to the grasslands, aeration to the soil, bones to go into stock, and blood to remind us of their sacrifice.
Instead of moving food production to the lab, let’s embrace a more holistic approach to agriculture. Let’s support farmers who grow it as close to the way nature intended—not on a factory farm and not on a lab.