Science is making breakthroughs in food production, energy and healthcare that are almost beyond belief – I mean, have you seen how good Jane Fonda looks at 78? So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that smart, brainy types in lab coats have figured out how to manufacture meat products in a laboratory without an actual animal. It’s called cultured meat and they take live cells from a donor animal via biopsy (often stem cells) and grow them in a specific culture media – I picture a piece of liver in a petri dish under florescent lights. There is no shortage of debate about the pros and cons of this emerging technology. Below are my random thoughts and opinions and are not a summary of actual science. I’m going to stay away from “people won’t eat something gross like fake meat” cause, let’s be honest – if we can sell them on baked chicken breast, then lab meat is not that much of a stretch.
One of the main pitches for lab meat is that it’s “cruelty free”, which sounds really good if you are one of the growing number of consumers who believe that animal agriculture is, inherently inhumane. Sigh… The fundamental flaw in this logic is the same as the vegan myth that animals don’t die if you don’t eat meat. Humans have worked our way to the top of the evolutionary ladder over millions of years and every time we invent something new for Team People, there is an impact on species lower on the evolutionary ladder. When we grow vegetables for people food, animals get caught in the cross fire of harvesting equipment and they lose habitat to cultivated rows of kale, cucumbers and tomatoes. But what about something not even part of the food chain, like driving – even vegans and animal rights activists drive. The amount of animals and birds killed or displaced by roads and traffic, not to mention the resources required to put all those electric cars on the road certainly kills millions of animals, but, out of sight, out of mind. Give your head a shake – cities, the foundation of modern civilization, have removed huge chunks of animal habitats, yet I don’t think anyone is suggesting we should revert back to living in caves or jungles just because that’s the way it would be “in nature.”
The environmental argument is another pillar of the lab meat movement. Stats are quoted for how many resources we can save and how much less land is required to grow meat in a lab vs conventional animal agriculture. The main technological reason they can make this claim is that more of the resources (energy, protein and minerals) go directly into tissue growth because there is no actual animal walking around performing those nasty everyday functions like eating, breathing and reproducing. There is however a pretty big laboratory infrastructure required to maintain the correct environment. It takes a lot of energy to control things like temperature, PH and tissue health. Just like with actual animals, in order to grow, the test tube tissue needs to be fed. This part I think is actually really exciting: the food source scientists are using is something called microalgae, which, as you might guess is very efficient to grow and has a very small enviro footprint. This is one of the big “YAHOO” moments for lab meat. The part I am excited about is that microalgae is also a remarkably good feed stock for actual food animals. So, if we develop microalgae as a feed crop for chickens (which already have a lower enviro footprint than lab meat) there are some very exciting possibilities, even is the end result is boring old chicken. Get it – microalgae is the star, not lab meat.
Ok, I will concede that lab meat in combo with microalgae can be produced on a much smaller land base than beef, which has become the poster child for irresponsible use of resources and land. Here’s the part that some people will be shocked at – THERE’S NO SHORTAGE OF LAND TO RAISE BEEF! Whew, I had to get that off my chest. About 60% of the world’s arable land is only suitable for grazing. That means it can’t be used to grow corn or soybeans or rice or cucumbers or kale and that without grazing animals like, cattle, sheep, goats and buffalo we would give up the ability to use this renewable resource to provide food, fuel and pharmaceuticals to a massively expanding global population. And… that’s what drives me nuts about the land use argument. It is really not an either/or argument – we can develop new feed sources and technologies AND continue to develop and advance the efficiency of the worlds gazing lands.
Science is doing some exciting things and some of the technologies being developed by growing meat in a laboratory have the potential to dramatically improve the efficiency of meat production. The question I would ask the beaker jockeys in their lab coats is – why are we trying to re-invent the wheel when we should be improving the great wheel we already have?