January 13, 2021
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In June of 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown rolled out a mandatory 25% water restriction in response to a three-year-long, statewide drought. Californians responded in kind, installing water-saving shower heads, ultra-low-flush toilets, and shut-off nozzles on all hoses. They turned off the faucet when brushing their teeth and made sure the washing machine was full before starting a load. Everywhere you looked, there were signs advising how to cut back on water usage. Yet none of them pointed to one of the greatest sources of water usage: the cattle industry.
Foodtank reports that producing one pound of beef requires nearly 1,800 gallons of water. By comparison, one pound of tofu requires 302 gallons of water. Pasta requires 222 gal./lb. And broccoli requires just 34 gal./lb. This means that diet—rather than shower length—may be the main contributor to the the water footprint of most Americans. According to National Geographic, “cutting consumption of animal products in half would reduce the US’s dietary requirements of water by 37 percent.”
So, what should we do with this information? Organize a march on the nearest CAFO? Boycott Burger King? Go vegan?
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As consumers become more aware of the implications of their diets, researchers are searching for a solution that both satisfies the nation’s beef cravings and cuts down on the environmental impact.
Lab-grown meats or synthetic meat—that is, meat cultures grown in large vats—promise a more sustainable means of getting the meats we love. Lab-made burgers have made headlines over the last few months, and other companies have followed suit with their own artificial alternatives. Lab-grown fish, chorizo, and foie gras are all currently in production. But many people still wonder: does meat grown in a lab really qualify as meat?
The short answer is: yes, but it can be a bit more complicated. Taking a group of microscopic cells and making hamburger is a complex process involving techniques that vary depending on the company.
At its core, the process of making synthetic meat involves taking skeletal muscle cells, or stem cells, from the animal. The cells are then transported to vats where they begin to grow in a nutrient-rich broth comprised of sugars, amino acids, and vitamins. In many cases, scientists will monitor the progress of the cell growth, switching out the broth every few days and removing cellular waste products.
From there, the process becomes a manufacturing one. Once there are billions of cells in the vat, they can be organized into different structures to replicate the trademark textures of steak or ground meat can be replicated. Better yet, they can even be mixed with different amounts of fats to resemble different cuts of meat. These fat cells are taken from living or deceased animals and co-cultured along with the muscle tissue to produce the signature taste we love.
Benefits of Synthetic Meat
The implications of this new market cannot be discounted. Because the environmental impact of growing meat is so high, even small market adoption of lab meat could mean huge environmental improvements. These include:
Reducing Water Consumption and Co2 Production
As previously mentioned, the amount of water it takes to raise a single pound of beef is unsustainable. Further, the levels of Co2 produced by livestock outweigh that of the entire transportation industry. Reducing these figures even a modest amount could mean major benefits for the environment.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 26 percent of the earth’s ice-free terrestrial surface is used for livestock grazing. Adoption of lab meats would drastically decrease land usage for food production.
E. Coli contamination causes an estimated 31 deaths per year in the U.S. Since lab meats are raised in sterile laboratories, the risk of food contamination is far lower than with traditional farming practices.
Pitfalls of Synthetic Meat
While lab meats may seem like a dream come true, there are still a few hurdles that need to be cleared before we can start to reap the benefits they represent. At present, the biggest factor preventing widespread adoption is cost. In 2013, it cost the Netherlands-based Mosa Meats around $1.2M to make a pound of lab meat, and while today many companies have developed solution to lower the cost, traditionally raised beef is still cheaper to raise. The University of Wyoming reports that the average cost of raising one pound of traditional beef is around $4.10. So while Mosa Meats has reportedly lowered the cost of production to just $30 per pound, there is still a ways to go before clean meats can be feasibly sold in stores.
Additionally, many of the current processes used to extract cells are far from cruelty-free. Right now much of the lab-grown meats in production actually requires blood from fetal cows. Nonetheless, while we’re still a ways off in terms of reaching environmental and animal sustainability, hundreds of companies and academics are searching for a solution.
One example is the Israeli company SuperMeat, which is producing chicken cultured from animal cells. SuperMeat harvests their chicken cells via a harmless biopsy of a live chicken. In principle, this process could be done once and replicated for each additional use, thereby reducing animal suffering.
Although it is not yet scalable, the rise of lab grown meats shows that we are making strides toward a world in which the environmental impact of our food is not one of devastation.
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