Image © criene via Twenty20

Will we all soon be eating lab-grown meat?

The technology is being touted as a way to simultaneously benefit our tastebuds and the planet.

Lab grown meat is, well, meat that is grown in a lab. Basically it’s about replicating the molecules that make up a slab of pork or beef without there ever having to be an actual pig or cow to get the meat from. Doing this is much harder, and therefore much more expensive, than acquiring meat in the traditional way. But getting meat from a lab also holds several significant advantages over going the animal-slaughtering route. The biggest such advantage is that lab-grown meat could provide a way for people who like the taste of meat but take issue with the way it is currently produced to keep the foodstuff in their diet.

One such group of people are those who are uncomfortable with the animal-rights aspect of meat cultivation and consumption. This group may be of a sizable number, especially in the West. Large majorities of British people tell pollsters that they care a lot about animal rights. According to the Veganury campaign, concern for the animals is the most popular reason for cutting out animal products - almost half of all participants named it as their main motivation.

Another potential fan group for lab-grown meat is environmentalists. Awareness of the large carbon footprint of farming animals is growing, as is concern about climate change. For individuals, cutting out meat and dairy has been highlighted by some scientists as the single biggest way they can reduce the impact they have on the planet, and many are heeding the call. Two-fifth of Brits now say they’re making their diets more plant-based for environmental reasons.

As with animal rights, lab-grown meat could offer a path to side-step a lot of people's environmental issues with meat without anyone having to sacrifice steak night. After all, meat labs don’t require razing rainforests for agriculture or having a bunch of methane-burping cows about. Of course, for it to truly be a planet-friendly substitute the process of producing lab-grown meat would have to be greenified more than it currently is. Those labs would have to run off renewable energy, for example. But advocates think doing this would be far easier than trying to, say, toilet train the billion cows that are in the world (cow waste has lots of environmentally-unfriendly toxins).

Animal lovers and environmentalists already add up to a large number of potential customers for lab-grown meat. But there are some benefits to it that could get all of humanity on board. If all meateaters mass-switched to lab-grown meat it would reduce the risk of another pandemic (outbreaks of new human-threatening diseases are not infrequently linked to farming and/or animal-eating) and also make it less likely that strains of deadly, antibiotic-resistant bacteria develop (farmers currently feed their livestock a lot of antibiotics as a precaution, but this increases the risk of harmful bacteria mutating).

But would such a big switch in eating habits even be possible? It would require lab-grown meat to be commercialised, which means that it could be manufactured at scale and at a cost that would allow customers to afford it and food companies to make money from selling it. So far, none of these conditions are anywhere near being met. The technology is improving. But even if lab-grown meats gets on supermarket shelves, it would still need to be an appealing option for customers - and as the backlash against genetically-modified food has shown, humans don’t always take to food produced with unfamiliar technology.

Optimists may say all these problems can be overcome by throwing more time, money and marketing at the process. But others say lab-grown meat is only grabbing headlines because it’s a comforting distraction that stops people from having to face up to the reality that combating severe global problems - especially environmental ones - means humans - especially rich ones - are going to have to make big changes to their lifestyles. For these people, there is no equivalent alternative to actually giving up (or cutting right down on) meat consumption.

Of course, there are problems with the just-eat-less-meat approach too. One major one is that it relies on huge numbers of people voluntarily giving up something they previously enjoyed. (Theoretically governments could also step in and force them to give it up, but this would be a tricky political ask, especially in democracies.) Social norms do change, and can change quickly, as the huge global increase of vegans and vegetarians in the last few years shows. But for some, being able to offer those reluctant to ditch their cheeseburgers a less harmful, lab-grown alternative will be an incredibly useful tool to help turbocharge this social change.

Read our explainer on: how our food is made

Recent articles

Reader Comments