Hanni Rützler, an Austrian nutrition scientist, made history in 2013 when she became the first person to taste meat grown in a lab rather than a pasture — or factory farm. The burger she described as tasting “as juicy as meat can be, but different” was developed by Mark Post and colleagues at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Josh Schonwald, an American food writer, also got a bite of lab burger at the press event in London. His take? “It wasn’t unpleasant.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Less Animal, Less Impact
To create lab meat, more commonly known these days as cell-cultured meat or cultivated meat, the muscle, fat, and connective tissues we tear into when we eat meat are grown from stem cells nurtured in a growth medium. After the stem cells have proliferated sufficiently, scientists goose them into becoming muscle cells or fat cells. This of course bypasses the animal itself, as well as any concerns about animal slaughter and cruelty. Not surprisingly, Post’s initial research was funded in part by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
But it’s not just animals that cultured meat is meant to save. The planet stands to gain, too, according to proponents of the technology. With the world’s population expected to surge past nine billion by 2050 and meat production being a major contributor to global warming, cell cultured meat may be the solution we’ve been looking for. One of the early arguments in favor of the meat was that it had a much smaller environmental footprint than traditionally farmed meat. However, studies on the environmental impact of the process have varied in their estimates, primarily because researchers must make a lot of assumptions about the methods that will be used to produce the meat. For example, studies that factored in steam cleaning of the bioreactor came up with higher energy use estimates than those that didn’t.
In a 2018 paper, Hanna Tuomisto, a professor at the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science, wrote, “When comparing the environmental impacts of cultured meat with plant-based foods, the available estimates show that cultured meat has higher [greenhouse gas] emissions and energy use compared to unprocessed plant-based protein crops, such as beans and peas, but emissions are comparable with processed vegetarian meat substitutes.” But she cautions, “The environmental impact estimates of cultured meat are only available for unprocessed products; further processing would thus increase their impacts.” Generally, though, cell cultured meat is expected to use less water and land and may produce fewer overall greenhouse gases, assuming the world makes the transition to clean, renewable energy sources.
Not Yet Ready for the Grill
Whether cell cultured meat turns out to be a game-changer or not remains to be seen. But in any case, it’s not likely to happen in time for your next cookout. Today, eight years after its debut in London, several companies are in the process of bringing this brave new meat out of the lab and into the factory, and eventually, they hope, into supermarkets. And they have largely worked out the flavor issues. Tasters are now more likely to use words like “delicious” than “not unpleasant.”
In June, an Israeli company, Future Meat, announced that it was opening a facility that will be able to produce the equivalent of 5, 000 hamburgers a day. The company says it hopes to have product available in the U.S. by 2022. Another company, Eat Just, is already marketing a “chicken” nugget product in Singapore, the first country to approve cell cultured meat for sale. But in many ways, all of these announcements are more hype than hamburger. There are still many hurdles to get over before we’re routinely dropping lab meat into our shopping baskets.
Nicholas Genovese, a stem cell biologist and a pioneer of the science that made cell cultured meat feasible, co-founded a company (formerly called Memphis Meats, now Upside Foods) working to bring this meat to market. Genovese, who recently left Upside, points out that the real challenges for all these companies are scalability and meeting regulatory hurdles. Bringing a product to market at a competitive price “involves a lot of considerations that really don’t come into the picture if you’re trying to make a prototype,” he says. “Several companies have talked about initial limited launches in or by 2022. But it may be a few more years before there’s widespread access and distribution.”
Also, the technology is so far limited to ground meat — hamburgers and nuggets made from something more like minced chicken (though Wildtype foods, a company in San Francisco, is making progress on sushi-style salmon). There are still many hurdles to get over before you’ll be able to toss a slab of cell cultured T-bone on the grill. To create the muscle fiber meat eaters relish in steak or chicken breast, researchers are trying different techniques, including stretching tissue on scaffolding and zapping it with electricity. Many of these are showing promise, but this is still very much in the experimental stages. Despite the mouth-watering pictures on the companies’ websites, we’re just not there yet.
Meanwhile, the environmental situation we hope to mitigate has only grown more urgent. “My understanding of the development of the technology is that it is still going to take more than 10 years, and most likely way more than that, before the products can be widely available at an affordable price,” Tuomisto says. “Therefore, we cannot rely on cultured meat for the urgent problems that require immediate actions.”
On the other hand, we shouldn’t give up on this. “In the longer term,” Tuomisto adds, “cultured meat can contribute to improved sustainability of food systems.” So there is hope for animal-loving meat lovers who care about the environment, but don’t give up your veggie burger yet.