Cultivated meats enter U.S. market
After a decision by the USDA and FDA, American consumers are one step closer to buying lab-grown meat at groceries and restaurants.
What does this mean for the world and your diet? Let’s discuss.
What is cultivated meat?
Cultivated meat — aka cultured or lab-grown meat — is meat produced by cultivating animal cells directly.
It's made by collecting stem cells, culturing them into muscle, and structuring them into meat. Depending on what meat is being made, the process takes anywhere from 2 to 8 weeks to have a finished product.
The process eliminates the need to farm and slaughter animals for food, helping reduce meat’s environmental impact. Cultivated meat is made of the same cell types as conventional meat and can be arranged in the same or similar structure as animal tissues, “replicating the sensory and nutritional profiles of conventional meat,” the Good Food Institute reports.
Dutch scientist Mark Post is credited with cooking up the first cultivated meat dish in 2013 after serving up a lab-grown burger on live TV. While his feat put cultivated meat in the limelight, the process is the accumulated wisdom of decades of research in cell culture, stem cell biology, tissue engineering, and more.
Although the process is still expensive — and the product isn’t yet legal in most countries — environmentalists and foodies believe cultivated meat presents promise. And businesses are vying to capitalize.
There were only four cultivated meat companies in 2014 and there are now more than 150 food tech businesses that are backed by $2.6 billion in investments.
Farmed-raised animals account for about 15 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. And nearly 30 percent of the Earth’s ice-free land is used to raise livestock.
Beef and dairy cattle are particularly burdensome on the environment, requiring large plots of irrigated land and producing large amounts of methane gas, which has 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide. Cattle represent about 65 percent of livestock emissions around the globe.
If widely adopted, cultivated meat producers say they could significantly diminish meat’s environmental impact with fewer carbon emissions, less deforestation, and improved soil health. Some scientists are still skeptical of the industry’s environmental claims — and some say it could be worse.
Sci-fi for real
How does a mammoth steak sound? While the nascent industry is still finding its footing, some food tech startups are already pursuing more exotic meat options.
For example, food tech company Vow cooked up a wooly mammoth meatball by inserting the ancient animal’s DNA sequence into sheep cells and cultivating those cells into the dish. Another company, Primeval Foods, hopes to make a range of wild meats, including lion, tiger, and zebra.
While Good Meat and Upside can now sell cultivated meats, it’ll likely be a long time before you can swing by the grocery to get lab-grown sausage links. Despite billions in venture capital funding, the industry faces some big challenges.
Not only is obtaining FDA and USDA approval a difficult and long process, but the tech-intensive production of cultivated meat is still very expensive. There are steep capital costs with building facilities sterile enough to prevent bacterial growth. Sourcing high-quality amino acids for cell culture is also pricey.
As a result, cultivated meat costs about about $17 per pound while it costs about $2 to produce a pound of beef. On top of costs, it’s unclear how receptive consumers would be to cultivated meat products.