Is our culture ready for cultured meat?

Health: The dream of “raising” lab-grown, otherwise known as cultured or slaughter-free meat, through cellular agriculture has existed for decades. In 1931, Winston Churchill predicted the emergence of synthetic meat in an essay he titled “Fifty Years Hence.” But it was not until 2013 when Mark Post, a professor at Maastricht University, unveiled the first hamburger made fully of cultured muscle cells. The patty took two years and $325,000 to manufacture. Yet proponents remained steadfast in their belief that cultured meat is the key to feeding the human population, respecting animals, and preserving the environment. Armed with advances in stem cell biology and tissue engineering, the sector has now expanded to include more than 40 global competitors. Though skeptics are left asking if lab-grown meat is just another problem disguised as a solution, similar to margarine or genetically engineered salmon?

Nonetheless, in a landmark decision earlier this month, Eat Just’s cultured “chicken bites” were approved for sale by a regulatory authority for the first time. Even though availability is limited to venues in Singapore, this action marks the beginning of cultured meat being viewed less like a science experiment and more as a path towards a sustainable form of meat production – one that theoretically offers a way out of environmental degradation and mass animal slaughter. However, before consolidating the number of global ranchers, biotechnology companies must recognize that animal husbandry provides 33 to 55 percent of the household income for the world’s 640 million small farmers.

Amidst the wave of hype, it is crucial to evaluate the ways that cultured meat could replicate problems that exist within our industrial food system by:

  • Underestimating the emissions generated by production – Many proponents of cellular agriculture may be surprised to hear that compared to raising cows on open pasture with minimal fertilizer use, growing cultured meat at scale could emit more harmful gases and incur steep energy costs. While cows burp up methane, a potent but shorter-lived greenhouse gas, emissions from lab-grown meat are almost all carbon dioxide, which remains in the atmosphere for more than a century. 
  • Perpetuating the problem of growth hormones – Even though cultured meat production reduces the use of growth-promoting antibiotics in animal agriculture, it simultaneously introduces new growth factors. To stimulate rapid protein synthesis and muscle development in cultured meat cells, scientists utilize growth mediums, including fetal bovine serum (FBS). FBS is a controversial component derived from bovine fetuses without anesthesia.
  • Failing to account for waste streams – Animals are born with an immune system that protects against bacterial and other infections. This is not the case for slaughter-free meat, which is cultivated in sterile bioreactors to avoid contamination. The single-use plastic containers not only generate waste but also put satellite muscle cells in close contact with endocrine disruptors, which often move from plastic packaging to food.  These compounds interfere with the human hormone system, causing a host of reproductive, brain, developmental, and immune problems. 

It is clear that the current form of industrial meat production has negative impacts on the health of people, animals, and the planet. But both lab-grown and conventionally produced meat are guilty of fracturing the intimate relationship between humans and the animals we eat. Before demonizing animal agriculture as a whole, we must acknowledge that livestock serves many functions outside of meat production. When deployed in managed grazing systems, ruminants are uniquely capable of recycling human-inedible food and plant waste, increasing the biodiversity of an ecosystem, improving water infiltration into the soil, and more. To achieve a diet that is truly sustainable and healthy, we must remain open to natural systems that can produce nutritious meat, regenerate agroecosystems, and elevate farming communities.  

Listen: In this episode of The Doctor’s Farmacy, Dr. Mark Hyman sits down with Paul Hawkin – an entrepreneur, author, and Executive Director of Project Drawdown – to discuss his comprehensive plan for reversing climate change. Similar to the way that Functional Medicine presents a holistic, natural way to treat disease, there are practical solutions to global warming, many of which have to do with food. According to Paul, when we adjust agriculture practices – i.e., moving away from centralized animal feeding operations (CAFOs) – we not only reduce emissions but create new carbon sequestration opportunities. Thus, the choices that we make around food production and consumption are critical to maintaining the health of our society and our planet.