Why lab-grown meat matters: USDA approval and environmental impact

In June of 2023, a release was buried in the cacophony of news stories that the USDA had approved two companies for selling lab-grown meat. This news followed the FDA’s conclusion that lab-grown meat was safe for human consumption. The two companies, GOOD Meat and UPSIDE Foods, have been working on various lab-grown types of meat, including steak, seafood, and pork, but have been given the regulatory go-ahead for Chicken.

The big question is, why do we need lab-grown meat? We have a multi-billion-dollar meat industry, and there appears to be no food shortage in the near future. Well, the human population is increasing, and so is meat consumption. The amount of meat consumed has risen from 45 million tonnes per year in 1950 to an astonishing 300 million tonnes per year currently and, if nothing changes, is set to double to 600 million tonnes by 2050. That may not strike a chord, but we now slaughter 80 billion animals yearly (10 times the human population) to procure that meat. You do not need to be a math whiz to figure out that with a growing population, we will outstrip our meat supply over time.

If that doesn’t pique your palate, how about greenhouse gases and climate change? Food production accounts for a third of all planet-heating gases from human activity, of which meat production is responsible for 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions occur from agricultural land needed to produce feed, methane gas emissions, and deforestation. Eating a pound of beef is equivalent to driving 30 miles, producing approximately 70 kg of emissions, depending on the paper you read. While these numbers don’t seem huge, the hit to the planet is extraordinary when you scale them up to 300 million tonnes of meat consumed yearly. Lab-grown meat is an energy-intensive process, but if lab meat production uses renewable energy sources, it may impact climate change.

Meat is essentially animal muscle – a combination of muscle cells, connective tissue, blood vessels, and fat in varying proportions. Lab meat begins by harvesting stem cells from a live or recently slaughtered animal (which may solve the halal/Kosher preference). Stem cells are the primary cells that can differentiate into specialized cells. The cells are then placed in large bioreactors and nourished with culture media mimicking conditions in the animal’s body. Changing the proportion of the culture differentiates cells into muscle, fat, and connective tissue. These cells need a scaffold, an edible material, and the cells are arranged in various proportions into the scaffold to help them further mature into specific meats and voilà; you have your meat of choice. As you can see, this is a challenging and expensive process. The price of lab-grown meat is currently 17 dollars a pound, and to get to 1 percent of the protein market, McKinsey & Company estimates the need for 88 to 176 Olympic-sized swimming pool fermentation capacity.

But isn’t natural meat healthier? It is, but what is natural anymore? Meat commercially produced is far from natural, with antibiotics used to help fight disease in livestock and manufactured mass feeding. While low-dose steroids are approved for cattle by the FDA, poultry is free of steroid use. If we get the lab-grown meat right, we can tailor the meat to a healthier diet. Considering that most chronic illnesses, including but not limited to diabetes, heart attacks, stroke, and cancer, eventually have a dietary component, the population is already craving for a healthy alternative.

We humans complicate food, as we should. It’s one of the few pleasures of life. There are books, movies, and a plethora of columns on gastronomy and a multi-billion-dollar economy balancing on it. It’s more basic from a pure science standpoint: no matter what we eat, in the end, it is broken down into sugars, fatty acids, and amino acids. The human body needs food for energy production, which is needed to sustain us. Food quality is determined by digestibility and the quality of amino and fatty acids. Taste is a function of the brain and helps us eat, but if we are deprived of food, we will eat, no matter what the taste. If we get the next generation of meat right, this may be one of those instances in which we have our cake and eat it too.

Dinesh Arab is a cardiologist.

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