Are There Problems with Lab-Grown Meat?

It's cool technology, but sometimes a simpler solution is all that's needed.

lab grown meat

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The recent announcement that lab-grown meat has been approved for sale in Singapore is being described as a victory for scientific innovation, animal welfare, human health, and environmentalism. It is a truly impressive feat, the production of edible meat from cells that doesn't harm a single animal in the making. But could there be problems with it? Might all the enthusiasm be a bit premature?

Some people are not convinced that lab-grown meat is the silver bullet solution that many would like it to be. In a 2019 article for Slate, food chemist and molecular biologist Christy Spackman challenges the whole idea of "improving" food on a molecular level. Sure, many great have come out of this kind of research, such as the discovery of vanillin and the usefulness of vitamin supplementation to reduce disease, but it's not necessarily a beneficial thing always to view food as something that can be deconstructed, tinkered with, and put back together in a new-and-improved version. 

These improved or "functional" foods, while they may have longer shelf lives and boosted health properties and more intense flavor, come with a higher price tag. This means they're only accessible to those who can afford to buy them. Spackman writes,

"The presence of these foods on the market — with their carefully engineered extraction and concentration of ingredients understood as having significant impact on health — reinforces the idea that access to healthful eating requires going through the technological and scientific expertise found in the industrial food laboratory."

And while cellular agriculture (a.k.a. lab-grown meat) does not make the same claims about health that these functional foods do, Spackman writes that it does operate on the same assumption that "industrial research and production assemblage" go hand-in-hand with access to "clean, environmentally-friendly meat." This ends up being expensive and thus inaccessible to less privileged members of society. She says, "We find the same far-flung supply chains and base materials that rely on petrochemical extraction. And we see once again a divide between who can even produce these foods, let alone get access to them."

Author Jenny Kleeman has a similar take, writing that developing cellular agriculture deepens our reliance on "remote corporations with highly specialised technology to meet our basic needs" – not necessarily something that we should be encouraging (particularly when COVID-19's grocery store shortages highlighted just how dependent we already are on distant supply chains). 

In an article for the Guardian, Kleeman raises doubts about Eat Just's decision to seek approval in Singapore, rather than the United States, based on its CEO Josh Tetrick's claim that the Food and Drug Administration is behind the times. This raises red flags for Kleeman, who writes,

"Instead of waiting for it to be ready, the company found a country with more amenable standards to give it the green light to put its product on sale. That’s problematic for the entire cultured meat industry: consumers care more about the provenance of food now than ever before, and any producer of a new food needs to be seen to take regulatory standards seriously."

The rush to release the chicken bites before the fetal bovine serum (FBS) feedstock was phased out in favor of a plant-based alternative is also questionable in Kleeman's eyes. "It is difficult to imagine a less vegan substance than FBS. This was largely removed before consumption of the chicken bites, and Eat Just said it now had a plant-based medium to use in subsequent production lines." 

healthy lunch

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For me, as someone who has written about industrial agriculture for years now and is a staunch advocate of smaller-scale local and seasonal food systems, cellular agriculture feels like the antithesis of everything I advocate for. While I acknowledge the technology is impressive and would certainly try eating lab-grown meat, I do think people are often in too much of a hurry to embrace fancy technological fixes to problems that could be solved in much simpler (and dare I say boring?) ways. 

Yes, we eat far too much meat in developed countries, and we produce it in unethical, even dangerous ways (think antibiotic resistance), but we can fix that more rapidly and effectively by eating less meat, buying better quality meat when we do (ideally from small-scale farmers and producers in our own areas), and prioritizing other forms of nourishment, like vegetables, beans, lentils, and whole grains. 

I've written before about Band-Aid solutions being highly appealing because they don't challenge people to change their behaviors. Take biodegradable plastics, for instance, which allow people to justify going on with a disposable, eat-on-the-go-and-never-plan-ahead mentality. Maintaining (and greenwashing) the status quo is easier than planning and making meals in advance, carrying them from home in reusable containers, and washing the dishes. (Side note: Biodegradable plastics are not better than conventional plastics and pose many of the same risks to wildlife.)

The same goes for the meat issue. The push for cellular agriculture wouldn't be so strong if it weren't for the disastrous meat production system that has been established over the past half-century and for people gorging themselves on quantities of meat that would've been unheard of in our grandparents' time. As with so many environmental issues that have sprung from chronic over-consumption, a return to old-fashioned and more traditional ways of living would come as a relief to the planet, our bodies, and our wallets.

Cell-based meat is a fascinating invention, without a doubt, and it will be interesting to see the role it plays in society going forward. But let's not be too quick to assume it can fix everything, or that we can evade taking responsibility for our own actions that have created the problems cell-based meat is trying to repair.