Beef burgers, veggie burgers, and now… lab-grown meat? You may have heard rumblings that cultured meat — made from animal stem cells — may become a mainstream consumer option soon. Is it true? And if so, is it a good thing? What is lab-grown food? And should we be preparing for it to change the food system as we know it?
Since 2013, lab-grown food — and specifically cultured “clean meat” — has been gathering increasing attention and funding. The first-ever lab-grown burger was created in 2013 by scientist Mark Post, a professor of tissue engineering at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. It garnered press interest when it was eaten and reviewed by two food critics at a London news conference. While lab-grown meat isn’t available commercially just yet (it will likely hit shelves in 2021), it’s clearly been in the works for quite some time.
Plant-based meat alternatives, on the other hand, are available now and have become very popular in the last five years. Today, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat products are sold in restaurants and grocery stores around the world, sometimes even fooling meat-eaters into thinking they’re chowing down on actual beef. And there’s a long tradition of veggie burgers made from peas, soy, beans, grains, mushrooms, and vital wheat gluten, which may not attempt to fool the palate so much as provide a hearty, tasty, and convenient alternative to “real” burgers.
While the conversation about switching away from conventional meat to alternatives has taken on new urgency recently, it actually dates back to the 1970s, sparked by a book called Diet for a Small Planet. The author, Frances Moore Lappé, wrote about the negative effects of industrialized animal agriculture on the planet, sparking discussion about necessary changes to the food system for a more ethical and sustainable world.
The Future of Food?
Fast forward to today, and scientists and entrepreneurs are looking at ways they can mitigate the environmental impacts of factory farming and animal agriculture. Many researchers and thought leaders are encouraging people to eat less meat to reduce their impact on the planet. The authoritative medical journal The Lancet published a 2019 report advocating a largely plant-based diet as the basis of a more equitable and sustainable world, as well as one with far less chronic disease. The authors argue that if everyone in the world switched to a diet that included half the amount of red meat and sugar than the Western diet typically does — and instead based their diets on fruits and vegetables — we’d leave future generations with a more stable climate and a healthier planet, while approximately 11 million fewer people would die annually from preventable causes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted problems in the food production system, especially involving the meat industry. Meatpacking plants turn out to be a great way to spread a virus. Some have even been forced to close because so many of their workers were getting sick. Owing in part to supply chain disruptions, and in part to changing consumer sentiment, meat consumption has dropped. The drop is so noticeable that experts have predicted that “pre-pandemic” meat consumption numbers won’t bounce back until 2025 (if ever).
With the disturbing realities of the meat industry entering public consciousness at the same time as a global pandemic that apparently came from an animal, the question of lab-grown meat has become timely. Is it the way of the future? Is it a safe, ethical, and cost-effective way to provide meat to the public? Or is it just another idealistic fad, entrepreneurial wild goose chase, or dangerous biotechnology? Let’s take a closer look at what lab-grown food is and what it may have to offer.
What is Lab-Grown Food?
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