Lab Grown Meat - Epic Flop or the Future of Animal Free Alternatives?

Can you imagine a world without meat? No? Neither can the other seven billion and counting people who also live on this planet. After all, early humans evolved into their present-day incarnation upon the discovery of hunting and the consumption meat. However, the dietary staple that has led to the rise of the human race may just lead to its downfall. With the threat of climate change looming over future generations' ability to sustain on earth, scientists are looking for ways to cut humanity's carbon footprint. That includes curbing the emissions generated by the meat industry that 7 billion plus know and love. So will growing meat in a lab be the future to cruelty-free alternatives, or will it be an epic fail?

Climate Change and the Meat Industry

The earth has been heating up faster over the last thousand years than it naturally ever has. This has been attributed to the success of the industrial revolution. From factories to cars to farms, carbon is regularly emitted into the air. As populations steadily increase, so does the amount of aforementioned industries, resulting in even more carbon emissions. As NASA stated in 2009, "Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver."

Research conducted by the World Resources Institute found that 18% of humanity's total greenhouse gas emissions are as a result of the meat industry. And that is just the industry's carbon impact. Due to the amount of waste large animals emit, livestock produces two other climate-warming agents that are even more dangerous than carbon. They're responsible for 40% of the methane and 65% of the nitrous oxide emissions into the environment. These numbers are expected to double by 2050 according to the Food and Agriculture Organization to accommodate the 9.2 billion people the United Nations predicts will inhabit the earth by then.

With only 375 million people in the world living meat-free, scientists have come to the realization that the majority of humans will not give up their love affair with meat. So the best option is to create a meat that would use fewer resources.

The Evolution of the Veggie Burger

Vegetarianism has become more commonly practiced especially among the younger generations. In the past ten years alone, Britain has seen a 360% increase in vegetarians. China is looking to cut its meat intake 50% by 2030. Even vegan foods were added to Germany’s meat and beer-driven Oktoberfest. Vegetarian-based diets are being adopted all over the world because more people are gaining exposure to the lifestyle.

The first veggie burger to hit the market commercially was created by Gardenburger in 1992. Since 1992, grocery stores have become inundated with a wide variety of meat-free alternatives that are readily available for consumers. However, even though trends see vegetarianism on the uptick, it still has not become the majority's choice. That remains beef.

So scientists dived to the bottom of the issue, pondering why meat-eaters won’t budge on their dietary habits. They figured it came down to two things- taste and texture.

Instead of beef as the main source of protein in veggie burgers, they can consist of anything from tofu to soy to quinoa to black beans. None of these things taste or feel like the traditional sources of meat that most humans are accustomed to, turning meat-eaters off veggie burgers as their protein of choice.

The vegans

Physiologist Dr. Mark Post decided that the best way to get the desired flavors and nuances of an authentic burger was to go to the animal source. Using stem cells extracted from the shoulder of a cow, scientists created a patty of consisting of 20,000 individual muscle fibers in 2013.

This practice caused a bit of concern among the vegan community because the stem cells were extracted from a cow that was slaughtered for its meat. In order for lab-grown meat to start mass production, scientists would still need a consistent supply of livestock, just in smaller numbers.

Dr. Post stated in an interview with U.K. national newspaper, The Telegraph that, slaughter is still the most efficient way of taking the process forward. Using the stem cells from animals that were being killed for distribution in the food industry already allows the scientists to extract more stem cells. Therefore, the initial lab-made burgers are not essentially cruelty-free.

The animals are still being slaughtered for their meat, which is still being sold by the meat industry. With the lab-grown meat process, each slaughtered cow is yielding more food than just the flesh that the meat industry currently sells. That is because their stem cells are being harvested to grow even more "meat" that can be sold to the public.

The long-term goal is to be able to grow enough meat that the number of animals slaughtered declines with time. Dr. Post stated, "Eventually my vision is that you have a limited herd of donor animals in the world that you keep in stock and that you get your cells from there." The endgame is to get the cells in the same sort of manner as if the animals were having a biopsy.

Biopsies are a cruelty-free approach to sourcing the stem cells needed for lab-grown meat, but the process may never be considered vegan. The textbook definition of a vegan is someone who abstains from using anything that derives from an animal. As the stem cells divide and create more stem cells, they will always be traced back to an animal source. 

Ingrid Newkirk, President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) spoke to USA Today about the controversy, stating, "As long as there's anybody who's willing to kill a chicken, a cow or a pig to make their meal, we are all for this. Instead of the millions and billions (of animals) being slaughtered now, we could just clone a few cells to make burgers or chops."

THE MEAT-EATERS

Creating stem-cell burgers was not an easy task. The scientists needed to ensure that the living cells were well-fed and free of contamination. All of these resulted in what was a $300k experiment that produced mediocre results.

The texture and flavor were still not very favorable, and it was attributed to the fact that these particular burgers lacked fat. According to food scientist, Hanni Rutzler, the lack of fat inside the petri dish made the burger less juicy. Now, Post is working on cultivating fatty tissues as well as muscle fibers to find the perfect marriage of texture and taste. Once the taste is perfected, Post and company are confident that lab-grown meat will be healthier than the product of conventional meat production of today.

By creating meat in a petri-dish with stem cells from muscle, there are none of the natural saturated fats that come from animal meat. John Salge Blake, who is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics told The Atlantic, "If they are going to make their own fats, they will be able to replace the saturated fatty acids with, for example, omega-3 fatty acids."

Replacing cholesterol-laced saturated fats with healthier fatty acids can lower risks of heart disease. It may also alleviate inflammations that can lead to cancer.

With the Doomsday Clock inching closer to midnight, the race is on to make a meat that captures the imagination of all taste preferences. No synthetic meats have hit the marketplace, and the experiments are proving costly. However, entrepreneurs in San Francisco are hoping to release a brand of cell-cultured hot dogs, sausages, and meatballs called Memphis Meats in the next five years. Another brand called Perfect Day are working toward cow-free dairy products by the end of the year. Is lab-grown meat the future of food, or will it be another dietary fad that falls along the wayside? Time will tell.