I recently read a book on lab-grown meat called Clean Meat by Paul Shapiro. It is available in hardcopy for borrowing in NLB for free. This book was recommended on Reddit when they were discussing lab-grown meat. There is also a subreddit called r/wheresthebeef dedicated to all things regarding lab-grown meat.
What Is Lab-Grown Meat?
Lab-grown meat, also known as cultured meat, is created by feeding nutrients to extracted cells from animals. These individual cells will then multiply to create muscle strands that can be combined to resemble actual meat.
World’s first lab-grown hamburger
We first saw the lab-grown hamburger in 2013 when there was a press conference by Mosa Meat from the Netherlands that introduced the first lab-grown burger that cost US$280,000 to develop. The price of lab-grown meat has fallen sharply since, with Biotech Foods from Spain saying that their average cost of creating a kg of cultured meat is about US$116. In comparison, 1 kg of fresh farmed beef mince is about US$10 (S$13), more than 10 times cheaper. There is still a long way to go before it goes mainstream.
The technology behind cultured meat is groundbreaking but the concept behind it is actual millennia-old.
“Resemble” Meat? So What Are We Eating Actually?
The meat that comes directly off the animals does not only consist of muscle strands. Components like fats and tendons are currently not grown together with the muscle strands in cellular agriculture. The components can be added “post-growth” to create a taste closer to farmed meat. The muscle strands are also relatively loosely packed so the texture we will get at the moment will resemble nuggets and hamburgers instead of steaks.
Using Biotechnology To Create Food Is Not New
Common foods like bread, cheese, yoghurt and beer are the products of biotechnology where we make use of living organisms or cells in the creation of products. Microorganisms and cells are complicated pieces of machinery that we can harness to create new things and/or improve current processes.
- Bread, Beer – Yeast
- Yoghurt – Bacteria
- Cheese – Enzymes
These foods were first invented thousands of years ago and now we use technology in sterilized metal vats to create them en masse.
Biotechnology in foods can be classified into acellular and cellular agriculture.
What we are more familiar with is acellular agriculture where food is made BY cells.
Lab-grown meat is cellular agriculture where we are making food made of cells FROM cells.
Instead of fields and farms, we will be using Petri dishes and bioreactors to produce food.
Lab-Grown Meat In Singapore
Singapore became the first country to approve and sell lab-grown chicken in late 2020. The lab-grown chicken bites will be manufactured locally by a Californian start-up, Eat Just. Eat Just is the company that came up with plant-based eggs.
Source: Eat Just
The bites were served at 1880, an upscale eatery. S$23 for dishes containing the lab-grown chicken is a reasonable price for such a cutting edge technology. The first lab-grown beef patty took US$280,000 to produce in 2013. We have come a long way since.
Looking at 1880’s latest menu, I don’t see the cultured chicken being offered anymore.
Shiok Meats Crab Cake and Chilli Crab, complemented by Lobster-flavored Potato Chips and Tom Yum Shrimp Soup
Source: Shiok Meats
A local company, Shiok Meats, is also looking at producing lab-grown seafood like crab and lobster. They plan to commercialize and start selling their products in 2023. Sandhya, the CEO of Shiok Meats, envisions that we can grow our own meat at home within the next decade.
I look forward to more places to start selling cultured meat soon and help us in local production of lab-grown meats to meet our 30 by 30 food security goal.
Benefits of Lab-Grown Meat
There are multiple health, environmental and ethical benefits of lab-grown meat over farmed meat.
The extraction process is relatively pain-free and many animals will be spared from being killed and bred in overcrowded facilities. The starting stem cell can be either taken from a small piercing or a piece of feather or hair.
Mosa Meat says that feeding one 0.5g tissue sample (size of a peppercorn) with nutrients can yield enough muscle tissue to make 80,000 quarter-pounder burgers. In comparison, you will need 50 cows to make the equivalent number of burgers.
Hopefully, we can extract the stem cells with as little pain to the animal as possible. And in the future, we can breed and clone multiple generations of stem cells from the original generation without any animals involved anymore. With fewer over-crowded farms, there are benefits to both the environment and public health.
Inefficiencies Of Farmed Meat
To produce farmed meat, we need huge amounts of land, nutrients, water, fertilizer and labour as compared to lab-grown meat. Here are some examples of how much resources are needed for various kinds of food mentioned in the book
- 1 chicken takes 1000 gallons of water from shell to shelf
- A single egg takes 50 gallons of water from shell to shelf
- 1 gallon of milk takes 900 gallons of water to produce
- 1 gallon of soy milk takes 50 gallons of water to produce
- 8 oz steak takes the same resources to grow 45 cups of grains
According to Oxford researchers, cultured beef use up to 45% less energy, 99% less land, and 96% less water.
Lab-grown meat also saves energy by saving the energy needed to produce the unneeded parts like horns, beaks, eggs, metabolic heat loss, breathing and digesting. All energy is focused on just producing the meat or other products that we want.
The biggest cost of farmed animals is the feed. Deforestation is also an issue as we clear land to grow feed for the animals. 56 million acres of land are used to feed farmed animals, while only 4 million acres produce plants for human consumption.
Climate Change From Farmed Meat
Animal-based food including animal feed produces almost twice the amount of greenhouse gases as plant-based food.
As mentioned above about deforestation, the cutting down of tropical forests for animal grazing or to grow animal feed causes the release of long-held stores of carbon.
Farmed animals need a lot of animal feed to meet the world’s demand for meat. This means that farmers often use nitrogen fertilisers in their fields to boost plant growth. The production of nitrogen fertiliser causes the release of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.
Meat and dairy cows also produce methane during their digestion process.
Climate change creates a cycle where the temperature is no longer suitable for farmed animals so farmers will need to invest in cooling and heating systems which will also create greenhouse gases.
Food Safety And Public Health
Farmed animals have caused at least 9 pandemics in the last 170 years. With high amounts of animals in a relatively small area, it is easy for viruses and bacteria to replicate over different hosts with a chance of mutation every time they replicate.
There is also faecal contamination which causes diseases. E-coli and salmonella are from the intestines and so the meat and eggs have a chance of being tainted by these bacteria. Lab-grown meat is produced in a sterile environment plus there are no intestines in the first place so there will be no such issues.
To get as much milk as possible from dairy cows, cows are genetically selected and bred to produce abnormally large quantities of milk. If you are wondering how abnormal is the volume, you can take a look at this picture I saw on Reddit. This is just for one dairy cow.
This unnatural process combined with overmilking the cow leads to the inflammation of the cow’s udders. This infection generates pus, which gets into the milk.
Antibiotics in these animals also create resistance to antibiotics in humans. The antibiotics are proactively used to prevent illness and promote growth and not to cure illnesses.
With lab-grown products, a lot of farmed animal linked public health issues can be avoided.
Control Of Nutrients And Texture
The amount of fat, protein and micronutrients can be controlled precisely in the lab. We can produce a product with zero fat or a product with an ultra-high fat content like Kobe Beef. There can be also unlimited testing to get the perfect piece of meat without involving the killing of animals.
Problems With Lab-Grown Meat
There are still some issues regarding the acceptance of lab-grown meat.
Expensive To Produce
It is still really expensive to produce even though the prices have come down greatly. As long as the price doesn’t come down, it will only feed the niche market. Price is still a very important factor to many people.
There are multiple names referring to lab-grown products.
- Cultured meat
- Lab-grown meat
- Clean meat
- Slaughter-free meat
- Synthetic meat
This is really important as it will affect the levels of consumer acceptance of this new technology. For example, plant-based meat has successfully named its products like impossible meat and beyond meat which encapsulates the meaning of plant-based meat. Plant-based meat is not animal meat so consumers are more accepting of a non-natural production process.
The name has to imply that it is not farmed meat but still sound attractive to the average consumer. Names like lab-grown and synthetic meat make the consumer focus on the fact that they are made in the lab and are not natural.
The industry has not settled on a name so there is still a need to think of how to name lab-grown products.
Taste And Texture
It is currently not possible to grow a full steak as there is no scaffolding that is commercially produced that can let the cells grow into a shape of a piece of steak or chicken thigh. What we have now is the technology to make individual strands of muscle.
— MIT Technology Review (@techreview) September 23, 2014
It is also easier to create something like a “steak chip” as compared to a steak as it is a thin layer.
A piece of steak chip is a thin layer of meat cells that is less complex and easier to grow as compared to a full-blown steak. Unless a full piece of meat can be produced, it will not be able to compete against farmed meat. People might also be more accepting of a steak chip as compared to a steak grown out of a petri dish.
The lab settings in which the lab-grown meat are grown have some clutching their pearls. These individuals are usually those who also reject GMO foods. They will reject everything that is not natural and they don’t like scientists tampering with their food. The truth is that many of our foods have gone through a lot of modifications as compared to their initial forms in history. As long as it passes the food safety standards, it should be accepted as food.
We currently have high levels of food security that rejecting certain foods is relatively accepted in society. Many consumers still prefer products that are “natural”. Although lab-grown meat is technically chemically the same as meat, can we call them natural?
As climate change gets more serious and threatens our food security, I wonder how the mindset will shift when we no longer have the choice.
Elimination Of Jobs
If lab-grown meat takes off and replaces farmed animals, some people might be worried that it will eliminate jobs in that sector. It is illogical to stop progress if it will disrupt older industries. Imagine banning cars just because you are afraid of displacing the horse carriage. What is important is a smooth transition and training to make sure that farmed animal industries don’t suddenly go out of business. For example, Tyson Foods, the largest US food company and second-biggest meat processor in the world, calls itself a protein company and does not limit itself to a meat company. Companies should not reject new technology but lean into it to see if it presents new opportunities.
Plant-Based Vs Lab-Grown Meat
Plant-based meats like impossible meat and beyond meat has given us an alternative source of protein that is not from animals. Meat that is plant-based is already out on the market and is popular with both vegans and non-vegans. Meat-eaters might not reject plant-based meat, but the price and essentially taste will not be attractive to meat-eaters long term.
Although plant-based meat is more efficient and environmentally friendly, to some people, it is just not meat. Plant-based meat is an alternative source of protein that looks like meat, however, the taste and texture are still different from meat. We need to come up with something that can satisfy the demand of the taste for meat. It also doesn’t hurt to have another source of protein that we can make use of just like insect protein.
Even if we can curb meat demand and push for a more vegan lifestyle in the developing world, as the more rural parts of China and India gain wealth, their demand for meat will eclipse any decrease in consumption of meat in other parts of the world.
FAQs Regarding Lab-Grown Meat
Here are some common questions regarding lab-grown meat.
How Is Lab-Grown Meat Grown?
A sample of stem cells is extracted and placed in a medium with nutrients to allow the cells to multiply and grow. They will use the appropriate environment or triggers to make the stem cells differentiate into muscle cells as stem cells can be differentiated into all kinds of cells. Once they replicate enough to enough volume, it will resemble ground meat.
What Is Lab-Grown Meat Made Of?
It is made up of muscle strands that are made up of muscle cells. The muscle cells come from stem cells that are extracted from animals or potentially cloned.
Is Lab-Grown Meat Safe?
Yes, it is safe. As long as it passes your local food regulation authority, it will be safe for consumption. It is actually cleaner than farmed meat as lab-grown meat is produced in a sterile environment where exposure to faecal matter is impossible, unlike farmed meat.
Anti-GMO or natural food activists might say that we do not know what is in the meat but as long as the lab-grown meat passes all food safety tests, I don’t see an issue with it.
What Does Lab-Grown Meat Taste Like?
The lab-grown chicken bites from Eat Just tastes like nuggets as there are no sinews, fatty juices or meaty meat fibres which give the farmed chicken its texture and taste.
Similarly, lab-grown beef tastes like minced meat, which is possibly why they chose to make a burger in the first place.
In a piece of meat, it not only comprises muscle fibres but also includes blood vessels, nerves, connective tissues and fat cells. Thousands of flavour molecules contribute to the rich flavour profile of farmed meat. Although it is possible to add synthetic flavours to lab-grown meat, it is not easy to get it right.
Is Lab-Grown Meat Vegan?
Although there are no animals killed in the process, the stem cells of the animal have to be extracted to be in the starter culture. However, the lines can get blurred when the stem cells can be extracted from feathers or hair. Also, if the 100th generation stem cells are cloned or “bred” from a source that is from a few years ago, would it now be more disassociated from the original animal?
There is no vegan standard so it is up to the individual whether lab-grown meat is acceptable to them. But most vegans would say that lab-grown meat is less exploiting and cruel than farmed meat even if they wouldn’t eat it themselves.
Is Lab-Grown Meat Halal?
This question has divided opinions even amongst Islamic scholars. Some say that meat is only halal if it is from certain animals that are slaughtered and treated in a certain manner, but what if there is no slaughter in the first place?
The inconclusiveness of the halal status of lab-grown meat is enough to prevent practising Muslims from eating lab-grown meat.
Does Lab-Grown Meat Kill Animals?
No, the process doesn’t kill the animals used to produce lab-grown meat. A sample of stem cells can be extracted from the meat or other parts of the animal that contains stem cells like the base of a feather or hair. For context, a 0.5g piece of meat, a size of a peppercorn, can have enough cells to reproduce to make enough meat to make 80,000 burgers.
In the future when we can reliably clone cells, the stem cells can be cloned without involving any animals.
When Will Lab-Grown Meat Be Cheaper?
The prices of lab-grown meat have come down severely since the first US$280,000 burger but it still can’t compete with farmed meat. Many in the industry say the cost of lab-grown meat can be made comparable in the next decade but we will need to see it to believe it.
Other Lab-Grown Products
Besides lab-grown meat, there are also other products that are grown in the lab setting.
The Every Company, formally known as Clara food, is producing lab-grown egg whites.
They can potentially increase the protein content to make a “better” egg white and their egg whites cannot be tainted with salmonella. Instead of producing the full egg, egg whites are just some protein molecules floating in water so it is much easier to do so.
Perfect day invented the first lab-grown milk that have the same taste as farmed milk. There is no hormones, antibiotics or even lactose so that even the lactose intolerant can enjoy their product.
Modern Meadow has created the first lab-grown leather which they feel might be the product that can help introduce the world to lab-grown animal products.
They recently announced a joint venture with luxury textile and materials supplier, Limonta to bring their product to market.
Lab-grown diamonds are also available for purchase at a lower price compared to natural diamonds. It is a legitimate alternative that wedding couples look at when picking out their wedding rings. You can see places that sell lab-grown diamonds in Singapore here.
While the technology is still nascent, we have lab-grown organs that can open the possibility of organ transplants that have zero chance of rejection without the traditional waiting time.
The Future Of Lab-Grown Meat
We can compare factory farming and cultured animal products to coal mining and renewable energy. It is something that we can invest our resources into to try to alleviate our demand for farmed animals and the stress farmed animals place on the environment.
Currently, the fad is consumers are looking for naturally and minimally processed foods so can consumers accept cultured meats?
There is also the future possibilities of meat makers at home like bread, beer and yoghurt. We can just throw the materials in and the machine will grow meat for consumption.
I believe that multiple solutions like lab-grown meat, plant-based meat and insect protein can coexist to help relieve the demand for protein. We do not need to pick one solution and go ham. When we are not yet facing catastrophic times, we still have the resources to pursue all of them and see which ones can work out.
Humans are pragmatic consumers. Whale killing for oil and bones and horses for transport did not stop due to humane sentiment nor environmental concern, but an invention of a new product that replaced the old methods due to increased efficiency and lower costs. Whale oil and bones were replaced by kerosene and spring steel while horses were replaced by cars.
Lab-grown meat is still far from being price competitive. Once the cost and taste can compete, lab-grown will start gaining market share rapidly.
|Lab-Grown Meat Characteristics||Target Market|
|High Cost, Incomparable Taste||Advocates|
|High Cost, Normal Taste||More Advocates|
|Low Cost, Incomparable Taste||Advocates + Small Part of mainstream|
|Low Cost, Normal Taste||Mainstream|
Newfarm.io is a website that aims to track all cellular agriculture companies with news articles. Check it out if you are interested in the companies involved in the revolution.
Lab-grown meat is invented as a potential replacement for farmed meat. There are multiple environmental, health and ethical benefits of lab-grown meat over farmed meat. There are still multiple challenges before cultured meat can go mainstream. Besides lab-grown meat, there are also other lab-grown products like egg whites, leather and diamonds. Although lab-grown meat is not as efficient as plant-based meat or plant protein, it is still a viable technology as there is still demand for real meat and not something made of plants. Multiple alternative sources of protein like plant-based protein, insect protein and lab-grown protein can coexist to provide us with more choice and alleviate the demand for farmed protein.
Do let me know your thoughts about lab-grown meat or if you have anything to share about Singapore’s progress in growing our own meat.
If you need someone to give your lab-grown meat a taste test, do reach out!