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Under Discussion: In Vitro Meat

In 1931, Winston Churchill wrote an essay called “Fifty Years Hence,” which contained a series of predictions regarding the future of the human race. One of these predictions was that our food systems would change radically and become more efficient. He wrote,

We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium. Synthetic food will, of course, also be used in the future. Nor need the pleasures of the table be banished. That gloomy Utopia of tabloid meals need never be invaded. The new foods will from the outset be practically indistinguishable from the natural products, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation.

Churchill’s prediction is close to being realized. Some meat is now being produced through a process of cell culturing. Cell cultured meat is not plant-based (though there are many hybrid products). It is not some kind of meat replacement like Beyond Meat or Impossible products. Cell cultured meat is meat. It is derived from taking a biopsy of an animal — a collection of their cells. The cells are then taken to a lab where they are placed in a bioreactor, exercised, and fed a growth serum. As a result of this process, the cells multiply. The result is that we can now grow meat in a lab, and we can do so without killing any animals. If this process is adopted widely, we also no longer need to raise or feed billions of farm animals every year. There is no meat that we would not be able to create using this method. Companies specializing in in vitro technologies have produced beef, chicken, fish, and the much coveted bacon, among other products.

This month Singapore became the first country to grant regulatory approval for the sale of in vitro meat. This was regarded as a wise move for Singapore, since it is a small country that imports much of its food. The in vitro process provides the country with the potential to become food secure without the need for vast grazing land. The initial in vitro products are chicken nuggets produced by Eat Just, a company that is already known in the United States for its vegan egg and mayonnaise products. Achieving regulatory approval in Singapore may be a more promising proposition than it would be in the United States because of geopolitics. Singapore is not a country with a powerful agricultural lobby or large population of ranchers who view cultured meat as an existential threat.

There are significant advantages to producing meat using this method. First, we could cut back on, or ideally eliminate, the cruelty toward animals that is pervasive in industrial animal agriculture. Our current methods are also very bad for the environment, so in vitro meat would be a much more environmentally friendly way of harvesting meat. In vitro fish products have the potential to solve problems related to overfishing our oceans. Also, many major diseases are spread by animals in close quarters. If we stop gathering thousands of animals together in small spaces, we could go a long way toward preventing the spread of disease. An additional advantage is that meat grown in a lab can be designed to be healthy.

Initially, like most developing technology, the production of in vitro meat encountered challenges. The first was cost. In 2013, Mark Post and his company Mosa Meat unveiled their proof-of-concept — an in vitro hamburger. The scene resembled a set from Food Network. The chef prepared the patty on the grill of a portable kitchen. A panel of three judges sat in anticipation of consuming the first cell-cultured meat product. The patty was placed on a plate along with garnishes that were there just for show. The real question was, “will this product resemble a hamburger in both taste and texture?” The answer was a unanimous “yes!”, though some judges felt that there should have been more seasoning, which was intentionally left out in order to gain an assessment of the pure product itself. Other judges felt that the burger would have benefited from having more fat. At the time, Post and his team struggled with how to deal with this challenge — fats are not produced naturally through the process of cell culturing; they must be introduced in a different way. One way in which the cell-cultured burger failed to resemble the product you could purchase at your local burger joint is the price tag — the in vitro burger cost $280,000 dollars to produce. Most of this cost was research and development. The goal is for the cost of the final product to be the same as or even less than meat that requires the slaughter of animals.

A second major challenge has been texture. It is reasonably easy to produce ground meat in vitro. It is more challenging to produce meat that has the texture of a steak. Biotech companies have risen to the challenge. For example, the Israeli startup Redefine Meat is exploring producing meat with steak-like texture using 3-D printing.

But some challenges to in vitro meat are ethical rather than practical. There seem to be good consequentialist arguments for making this method the dominant way of producing meat. On the other hand, rights-based arguments suggest that we need to move away from any process that encourages us to think of our fellow creatures as edible rather than as beings with rights. This week, our authors will explore the ethical dimensions of the cultured meat debate. Should in vitro meat be the meat of the future?

-Rachel Robison-Greene

A.G. Holdier – “Aristotelian Temperance and Cultured Meat

Benjamin Rossi – “Animal Dignity and Cultured Meat

Rachel Robison-Greene – “Can In Vitro Meat Help Fix What Cattle Ranching Has Broken?