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Cell Shock: Is America Ready For Lab-Grown Meat?

Cell Shock: Is America Ready For Lab-Grown Meat? Promo Image

Ask anyone in the U.S. where animal products come from and you're bound to get an answer along the lines of hardworking small-town farmers, large agricultural companies or sad, mutilated animals subjected to a life of industrial optimization.

The people who are opinionated on these matters tend to fall at one extreme or the other, but what if there were a solution that could satisfy the both of them?  Enter cellular agriculture: animal products grown in a lab from a cell culture.

Interest in cellular agriculture (a.k.a. cultured-meat, lab-meat, clean meat or in-vitro meat) has skyrocketed since Mark Post, a professor at Maastricht University, developed the first ever lab-grown beef burger in 2013, The Guardian reports.  The burger was by no means gourmet, but to Post, "it showed that it could be done."

Fast forward three years and cellular agriculture has been funded by the likes of Elon Musk's brother, Kimbal Musk; Microsoft founder Bill Gates; businessman Richard Branson; and meat corporation Tyson Foods.  On Sept. 11, China announced a $300 million deal to partner with companies in Israel looking to combat greenhouse gas emissions, benefiting three of the nation's lab grown-meat companies.

According to Quartz, an article posted on China's state-run newspaper, China Science and Technology Daily, painted a surprisingly supportive picture of the cultured meat industry:

"Imagine the future," the article reads. "You have two identical products, one is that you have to slaughter the cattle to get. ‘The other’ is exactly the same, and cheaper, no greenhouse gas emissions, no animal slaughter, which one would you choose?"

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Lab-grown items have now grown to include eggs, fish, milk and even leather.  Taste is improving, and some scientists predict that lab-based meat could be commercially available as early as the end of this decade (The Guardian reports that Fishless Foods could have lab-grown seafood ready as early as 2019).

The trajectory of the lab meat industry seems to point skyward.  But is the U.S. ready for such a change?

Supporters of lab-grown meat are largely made up of vegans, environmentalists, health connoisseurs and tech-minded entrepreneurs who are eager to find ways to feed an expanding global population. However, even these people might be hesitant to get fully onboard the cultured meat bandwagon due to the shortcomings of actually growing it.

Though culturing meat in a lab would theoretically reduce the amount of slaughtered animals, foodborne diseases and direct greenhouse gas emissions caused by the animal agriculture industry, the technology is still not all there to actually accomplish what they have in mind.

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Lab-grown meat requires a serum to get the culture going.  This serum is still typically sourced from living animals, although some companies are developing ways to get around that, The Guardian reports.

Opposers of genetically-modified (GM) foods might also have a bone to pick with biochemists developing cultured meat. To avoid using animal-sourced serum, Fishless Foods injects fish DNA into GM yeasts.

Mike Selder, one of the founders of Fishless Foods, asserts that his cell culture is not GM, but rather that it "used proteins produced by a GMO to signal them to divide and grow."

In regards to the perceived "unnaturalness" of eating something grown in a lab, one company, New Harvest, offers the explanation that other cultured foods such as bread, cheese, yogurt and wine are "unnatural."  By their logic, cultured meat is simply another food product artificially derived from natural sources.

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According to The Times of Israel, it is believed that 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas pollution comes from methane produced by livestock. Unfortunately for companies like New Harvest, cultured meat has not been proven to be better for the environment than traditional meat.  

The Guardian reports that Hanna Tuomisto, a researcher at the University of Helsinki who specializes in the environmental impacts of food, estimates that cultured meat is no better than farm-raised meat, if not slightly worse. She warned that her estimates still contain a lot of uncertainty due to scale-adjustments of the studies and potential conversion of prior farmland.

Another rock in the path of the future of lab-meat is the economy.  America is still largely dependent on agriculture.  The USDA's Economic Research Service reports that livestock and poultry comprise more than half of all U.S. agricultural cash receipts. That's over $100 billion per year.

Post thinks that agricultural farmers could switch to crops that would provide nutrients for meat cultures -- a move that could potentially reduce greenhouse emissions and avoid the displacement of farmers.

Uma Valeti, CEO of lab-meat brand Memphis Meats, told The Guardian that "there will likely always be a role for family farms to play in feeding the planet."  With an expanding global population, however, she cautioned that "family farms can only produce a tiny fraction of the world’s demand for meat."

But even if the funding, technology and infrastructure for lab-grown meat were all there, American society would still need a big push before accepting their meat from a lab.

According to an article by Ars Technica, a 2017 study conducted by two researchers at the University of Queensland and published in the journal PLoS One found that roughly two-thirds of the 673 Americans surveyed would try lab-grown meat.  Half of these people reported that they might make it a part of their regular diets while one quarter of responders said they would never eat meat if it hadn't come from a live animal.

Men were more receptive to eating cultured meat than women, as were liberals over conservatives, and low-income people over high-income people.  Though vegetarians and vegans were supportive of the ethics of lab-grown meat, they were more likely than meat eaters to not want to eat it themselves.

With so many unknowns, cellular agriculture is likely to stay in the lab for many years before it reaches your supermarket.  But it is coming.  The question is: How long it will take for Americans to put it in their carts?

Sources: The Guardian, Quartz, The Times of Israel, USDA Economic Research ServiceArs Technica / Featured Image: Umberto Salvagnin/Flickr / Embedded Images: PIXNIOMax PixelJean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier/Flickr

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