Three Typical Mistakes About Cultivated Meat

Critics compare current prices, compare cultivated meat to a perfect world and bet against progress.

Cultivated meat
Cultivated meat in a petri dish (iStock/Svetlana Cherruty)

Two Californian companies, Good Meat and Upside Foods, have received approval to sell cultivated meat in the United States. They plan to offer it in upscale restaurants first and in grocery stores by 2028.

It makes America the second country in the world to legalize cultivated meat. Singapore was first in 2020. Israel could become the third: its regulators have received applications by food companies.

Europe is falling behind. It may take years before the EU allows meat grown from animal cells on its single market. However, the Netherlands — where cultivated meat was invented — is making it possible to taste cultivated meat at its two companies, Meatable and Mosa Meat. RTL News reports that the Dutch Food Safety Authority is expected to issue guideline for tastings in the coming weeks.

It is exciting news for those of us who like to eat meat, but don’t like to slaughter animals for it. Two in three Americans would try cultivated meat, according to a survey. The Good Food Institute, a think tank that promotes alternative proteins, has found similar interest in Europe.

A loud minority is vehemently opposed, and they are fed arguments by a livestock industry that considers cultivated meat a threat.

Let’s tackle the three biggest mistakes they make.

1. Comparing current prices

Cultivated meat is still expensive while governments in Europe and North America keep traditional meat cheap by subsidizing livestock farmers and exempting animal feed from import tariffs.

The average cultivated hamburger now sells for $9.80. When Mark Post of the Netherlands grew the first hamburger from animal cells in 2013, it cost him $325,000. It’s not unreasonable to assume the price will drop even more as the technology improves and companies are able to benefit from economies of scale. Even if cultivated meat remains more expensive than meat from slaughtered animals, there will be a market for it.

We should also consider the price of meat we don’t pay in the supermarket. Those are the environmental and health costs we pay through taxes and insurance. Intensive animal farming is agriculture’s largest contributor to global warming by far. It has made zoological diseases, like swine flu, more common. And overconsumption of meat makes people more vulnerable to bowel cancer and heart disease.

In his book Meatonomics (2013), David Robinson Simon estimates that the hidden costs of the animal food industry in the United States alone add up to $414 billion per year. That is $1.70 for every dollar of chicken or beef sold.

2. Comparing to a perfect world

Cultivating meat still requires cells from a live animal, which are grown into meat in a bioreactor. Bioreactors run on electricity, so cultivating meat still causes greenhouse gas emissions unless and until all electricity is generated by solar panels, wind turbines and nuclear plants. The bioreactors also need water and, of course, the meat plants take up land.

That is why some animal-rights and environmental activists oppose it. They would rather humanity gave up meat altogether. Unless you believe that is a realistic prospect, the fairer comparison is with the livestock and meat industry we have.

CE Delft, a Dutch research firm, calculated in 2021 that cultivated meat causes one-tenth the greenhouse gas emissions of traditional meat, requires 95 percent less farmland and 78 less freshwater.

A more recent paper in The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment reaches similar conclusions: cultivating meat at scale using renewable energy would reduce carbon emissions by 92 percent, land use by 90 percent and water use by 66 percent.

Some cultivated-meat companies use fetal bovine serum as their growth medium. This is harvested from the fetuses of slaughtered pregnant cows. Far fewer cows would need to be slaughtered for cultivated meat to match the production of the livestock industry: one cell can be grown into thousands of kilograms of meat. But companies still want to avoid slaughter altogether. Mosa Meat developed a synthetic alternative to fetal bovine serum in 2020. Good Meat received regulatory approval in Singapore this year to switch to a serum-free medium in its production.

Hardcore vegans on the left and pro-meat activists on the right have somehow convinced themselves that eating cell-based meat causes cancer. This is nonsense. If anything, cultivated meat is safer than the original. Elliot Swartz, a scientist at the Good Food Institute, explains that the FDA tested the submissions of Good Meat and Upside Foods for a variety of pathogens, including human and avian viruses and common foodborne contaminants, such as E. coli and salmonella. All came back negative. Chicken in the grocery store, by contrast, frequently tests positive for such contaminants.

It would be hugely cost-prohibitive for farmers or slaughterhouses to test every animal for diseases before they are killed. Worse, animals are routinely slaughtered even when they show outward signs of illness.

In many countries, livestock are preemptively given antibiotics, which helps prevent some diseases but also increases the risk that the people who eat their meat will become antibiotic-resistant.

Cultivated-meat companies can monitor the cell growth in their bioreactors in real time. If something goes wrong, they can simply shut down the process, throw away the contaminated product and start over.

3. Betting against progress

Derrick Risner of the University of California, Davis claims the environmental impact of cultivated meat will be “orders of magnitude” higher than retail beef.

His study has been widely reported, but Risner made two dubious assumptions:

  1. That cultivated-meat producers will continue to use expensive, pharmaceutical-grade components to feed their cells. Cellular Agricultural Europe, a lobby group, writes that no company plans to cultivate meat at scale this way, and joint research by Mosa Meat and Nutreco, funded by the European Commission, has already found that cheaper, food-grade ingredients can be used for up to 99 percent of cell feed. Liz Specht, also of the Good Food Institute, argues in New Scientist,
  2. Just as we wouldn’t assess the environmental impact of solar panels based on 1980s prototype production methods, we shouldn’t assess cultivated meat’s potential impact using R&D-scale processes.

  3. That our energy mix won’t get any cleaner. Cultivating meat is energy-intensive. If we don’t continue to phase out fossil fuels (and if bioreactors don’t become more energy-efficient), total greenhouse gas emissions from making meat would rise. But that assumes all the world’s plans to increase the share of renewable- and nuclear power will fail.

Nor did Risner factor in the possibility of rewilding agricultural land that would no longer be needed to rear livestock and grow animal feed, turning those areas from emitters of carbon dioxide and methane into carbon sinks.

The real challenges

If you want to throw doubt on cultivated meat, you don’t have to make stuff up. There are real challenges:

  • Companies are still figuring out how to grow more than muscle fibers, so in addition to nuggets, patties and sausages, they can also make more complex meats, like steaks.
  • They will need cheaper or bigger bioreactors to cultivate meat at scale.
  • And they will need regulatory as well as political approval in the EU. Even if the European Food Safety Authority declares cultivated meat safe to eat, European agriculture ministers could block market access. Italy already has.

CNBC, Sentient Media and MIT’s Technology Review do a good job of laying out these challenges in a fair and unbiased way.

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