In vitro meat – is meat from the lab a truly sustainable alternative?

A genius scientific idea or still a topic for the future? In Vitro Meat could serve as a non-vegetarian but sustainable, animal-friendly and environmentally friendly alternative of the future.

By 2050, the world’s population will increase from the current 7.3 billion to 9.6 billion. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has forecast that 70% more food will be needed in 2050 to meet the demands of the growing population, which is a major challenge due to limited resources and arable land. This will be accompanied by an increasing demand for meat, which is expected to increase by 85% compared to 2006. However, animal products are already responsible for about 60% of diet-related climate emissions. In addition to the already widespread meat alternatives such as tofu, seitan and the like, the time has come for new, mass-market solutions. More efficient methods of protein production are being developed to feed the world’s growing population while meeting today’s challenges such as environmental and animal welfare. This is because more and more people want to refrain from eating conventional meat: In 2012, Germans were buying around 11,000 tons of meat substitutes. Just seven years later, the figure was already 26,600 tons. Young people in particular are refusing to eat meat and are adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet. The most common reason for a vegetarian diet is animal welfare (Rewe; National Geographic; frontiers).

A non-vegetarian but sustainable, animal-friendly and environmentally friendly alternative could be so-called in vitro meat (also called cultured, artificial or lab-grown meat) (frontiers).

in vitro meat

In the production of in vitro meat, nature is imitated using state-of-the-art techniques: stem cells, painlessly obtained by biopsy from the muscle tissue of living cows, divide and multiply in a nutrient solution and develop independently first into muscle cells and then into muscle fibers. The nutrient solution is enriched with all the basic nutrients that the cells need: Amino acids, glucose, vitamins and inorganic salts, as well as proteins and other growth factors. Through their cell walls, the cells absorb all the nutrients they need to live, proliferate and build tissue. The muscle fibers are then trained like real muscles by mechanical and electrical impulses. In this way, wafer-thin layers of flesh are formed that resemble ground meat in their mass. Around 20,000 of these muscle cells are needed for a burger, for example. In addition, fat cells are grown in a similar way so that, together with the muscle tissue, it tastes as close as possible to real meat. This process takes about two to eight weeks, depending on the type of meat grown (Rewe; Quarks; Verbraucherzentrale; gfi). 

In the Netherlands, research on the meat alternative has been ongoing since the 1990s to increase food safety, reduce environmental impact and improve animal welfare. In 2013, the first burger from the lab, grown under the direction of Mark Post, a Dutch pharmacologist of Maastricht University, was ready for tasting; but at a high price: the elaborately grown fast food cost $300,000. There are now around 80 start-ups worldwide that want to bring cultured meat to our plates. Investors are supporting them with millions of dollars, and even large food companies are now getting involved. In Singapore and Israel, some restaurants already offer lab-grown meat on their menus. However, researchers have so far only succeeded in growing ground meat. Unlike steak or filet, the in vitro meat does not yet have a structure. For a steak or other cuts of meat, three-dimensional scaffolds are needed on which muscle cells can fray in all directions. Start-ups are experimenting with 3D printers to create pieces of meat from animal stem cells that grow into “steaks” in incubators (Rewe; Quarks; Verbraucherzentrale). 

While in the U.S. the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have already established a framework for regulating lab-grown meat, in vitro meat in the EU would possibly fall under “novel food” regulations, and approval would likely take several years (Quarks). 

But what are the advantages of lab-grown meat over conventional? Is it really free of animal suffering? Better for the environment? Healthier for humans?

in vitro meat

For the previously mentioned nutrient solution, calf serum is currently still used, which is taken from the fetus, causing it to die. So even this meat alternative is not yet completely free of animal suffering. Today, however, some research institutions and also in vitro meat producers are trying to replace calf serum with plant-based alternatives: Currently, certain fungal extracts and algae-based culture media seem promising (Rewe; Quarks). 

Although the animals do not have to die for stem cell collection, the animals still have to be kept for it – albeit on a much smaller scale than meat production from slaughtered animals. And tissue sampling also represents an injury to the animal – although a lesser one compared to the agony animals suffer in factory farming. However, there is no slaughter waste, such as hair or bones, because only what is actually consumed is farmed (Rewe; Quarks). 

Since lab-grown meat has not been consumed anywhere in the world, there is no valid data on the health value. However, consumers know what is on their plate: contamination with antibiotics or other chemicals is not an issue, and the risk of pathogens can also be contained. Production under controlled conditions in the laboratory should be less susceptible to germs. The number of diseases transmitted from animals to humans, as well as the number of diseases transmitted through the consumption of animal foods, could thus be reduced (Rewe; Verbraucherzentrale). 

In vitro meat would also likely require fewer resources in terms of land use (Verbraucherzentrale). 

Opinions differ on greenhouse gas emissions, with initial studies suggesting a significant reduction in greenhouse gases of more than 75%. More recent studies come to a different conclusion. According to these, the production of artificial meat generates more greenhouse gases than, for example, the production of conventional pork or chicken. In terms of energy consumption, more recent studies also assume a higher environmental impact in the production of lab-grown meat compared to conventional meat production. However, it is not clear what the production would actually end up consuming if it were done on a large scale: The cells need a warm environment, as warm as in the animal’s body, and the culture medium would need to be checked and replaced regularly to ensure that the nutrient supply remains constant and that no bacteria or fungi form. 
Compared to beef, however, cultured meat would have advantages: The Dutch developer of in vitro meat, Mark Post, says that producing a portion of meat from the laboratory is more efficient with regard to conventional feed on fattening farms because only two and a half kilograms of nutrients from plant sources are needed for about one kilogram of lab-grown meat, while nine kilograms of grain are needed for one kilogram of beef (Verbraucherzentrale; Quarks). 

Whether the production of artificial meat will be more environmentally friendly than that of conventional meat in the future is not yet foreseeable. At the moment, the small production volumes are significantly more energy-intensive and growing meat in the laboratory is not yet suitable for mass production. In addition, too high costs hinder the process. Overall, however, the trend toward “cellular agriculture” is gaining momentum and a great deal of money is being invested in research in this area. 
In terms of health, it can be said that in vitro meat is not unhealthier than meat from slaughtered animals, but it is not healthier either. It is undisputed that a predominantly plant-based diet is by far the healthiest and most environmentally friendly alternative to conventional meat and also to artificial meat. The excessive consumption of meat in our society not only pollutes the environment, but also our health. So, eating less meat would generally do us good – and this also applies to lab-grown meat. But: cultured meat will have to compete with other meat substitutes, especially plant-based alternatives (Rewe; Quarks; Verbraucherzentrale). 

In conclusion, it remains to be said: In vitro meat is only one of many possible solutions for the future. In combination with more animal-friendly meat production, alternative protein sources and the promotion of plant diversity, cultured meat can contribute to more sustainability in our diet. However, neither the technology nor our society is ready at this stage for in vitro meat to become commonplace. There are still many unanswered questions about sustainability, regional production and the role of agriculture in the future. All of these questions need to be addressed before lab-grown meat can be truly marketable (National Geographic). 

– by Marie Klimczak

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