Why Laboratory-Grown Meat Is Not Vegan

Lab-grown meat is not a panacea, nor is it cruelty-free

Close-up Of Researcher Inspecting Meat Sample In Laboratory

Getty Images / AndreyPopov

On August 5, 2013, Dutch scientist Mark Post presented the world's first laboratory-grown burger at a press conference, where he shared the patty with two food critics. Although the foodies found the flavor lacking, Post stated that the purpose of the exercise was to show that it could be done; flavor could be improved later.

Laboratory-grown meat may seem at once a Frankenfoods nightmare, as well as a solution to the animal rights and environmental concerns regarding meat-eating. While some animal protection organizations applaud the idea, meat grown in a laboratory could never be called vegan, would still be environmentally wasteful, and would not be cruelty-free.

Laboratory-Grown Meat Contains Animal Products

Although the number of animals affected would be greatly reduced, laboratory-grown meat would still require the use of animals. When scientists created the first laboratory-grown meat, they started with muscle cells from a live pig. However, cell cultures and tissue cultures typically do not live and reproduce forever. To mass-produce laboratory-grown meat on an ongoing basis, scientists would need a constant supply of live pigs, cows, chickens and other animals from which to take cells.

According to The Telegraph, "Prof Post said the most efficient way of taking the process forward would still involve slaughter. He said: 'Eventually my vision is that you have a limited herd of donor animals in the world that you keep in stock and that you get your cells from there.'"

Furthermore, these early experiments involved growing the cells “in a broth of other animal products,” which means that animals were used and perhaps killed in order to create the broth. This broth is either the food for the tissue culture, the matrix upon which the cells were grown, or both. Although the types of animal products used were not specified, the product could not be called vegan if the tissue culture was grown in animal products.

Later, The Telegraph reported that pig stem cells were grown "using a serum taken from a horse fetus," although it is unclear whether this serum is the same as the broth of animal products used in the earlier experiments.

Post's final experiments involved shoulder muscle cells taken from two organically raised calves and grown "in a broth containing vital nutrients and serum from a cow fetus."

It's Still Considered Wasteful

Scientists are hopeful that laboratory-grown meat will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but growing animal cells in a laboratory would still be a waste of resources, even if the cells were grown in a vegan medium. Traditional animal agriculture is wasteful because feeding grain to animals so that we can eat the animals is an inefficient use of resources. It takes 10 to 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of feedlot beef. Similarly, feeding plant foods to a muscle tissue culture would be wasteful compared to feeding plant foods to people directly.

Energy would also be required to “exercise” the muscle tissue, to create a texture similar to meat.

Growing meat in a laboratory may be more efficient than feedlot beef because only the desired tissues would be fed and produced, but it cannot be more efficient than feeding plant foods directly to people. However, Pamela Martin, an associate professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, co-authored a paper on the increased greenhouse gas emissions of a meat-based diet over a plant-based diet, and questions whether laboratory-grown meat would be more efficient than traditional meat. Martin stated, “It sounds like an energy-intensive process to me.”

As reported in the New York Times, Post replied to a question about whether vegetarians would like lab-grown meat, "Vegetarians should remain vegetarian. That’s even better for the environment."

Perpetuating Animal Use and Suffering

Assuming that immortal cell lines from cows, pigs and chickens could be developed and no new animals would have to be killed to produce certain types of meat, the use of animals to develop new types of meat would still continue. Even today, with thousands of years of traditional animal agriculture behind us, scientists still try to breed new varieties of animals who grow larger and faster, whose flesh has certain health benefits, or who have certain disease resistance. In the future, if laboratory-grown meat becomes a commercially viable product, scientists will continue to breed new varieties of animals. They will continue to experiment with cells from different types and species of animals, and those animals will be bred, kept, confined, used and killed in the never-ending search for a better product.

Also, because current research into laboratory-grown meat is using animals, it cannot be called cruelty-free and purchasing the product would support animal suffering.

While laboratory-grown meat would probably reduce animal suffering, it’s important to keep in mind that it is not vegan, it is not cruelty-free, it's still wasteful, and animals will suffer for laboratory-grown meat.