The Human Truth Foundation

Synthetically Grown (In-Vitro) Meat

By Vexen Crabtree 2023

#environmentalism #food #veganism #vegetarianism

Synthetic meat, also known as in-vitro meat, is grown in laboratories and vats rather than being the flesh of slaughtered animals1. It has been frequently predicted to be "nearly ready", but research continues and it is clearly at least another ten years away. When ready, it has "astounding potential to save animals"2.

Without the diseases, contaminations and antibiotics of animal agriculture, it has potential to be healthier1 and more predictable quality than slaughtered meat, avoiding those periodic disease outbreaks that lead to mass culling and supply chain disruptions2. The benefits to animal welfare are epic: no livestock needs to be kept in captivity, it requires no slaughter and no animal transportation, and could stop the hunting of endangered animals for their meat1,3. It is much better for the environment, using 98% less land than animal agriculture and 82-92% less water, up to 60% less energy for equivalents to pork, sheep and beef and producing 80-90% lower greenhouse gas emissions3,2.

But potential isn't matching reality. Synthetic meats are still having to use particularly cruel animal extractions in order to provide growth media; the market is likely to remain experimental and niche for a long time and may never be accepted by vegans2 nor by committed carnivores. It is being comprehensively overtaken by high-quality protein-rich plant-based foods with denser textures. Encouraging plant-based foods seems a winner, whereas synthetic meat is turning out to be too slow to develop, and once done, will remain too expensive to become influential enough to help with reducing unsustainable animal agriculture and animal suffering.

1. Advantages

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  1. The "Astounding Potential to Save Animals"2: In 2018, 74 billion animals were killed for their flesh2, mostly after having had truly awful lives, pumped full of growth drugs, and forced to live inhumane and unnatural lives.

    The Good Food Institute says that a cell culture the size of one egg can produce a million times more meat than a chicken shed crammed with 20,000 chickens. The potential to save billions of animals' lives is very real.

    "Lab Meat: Miracle or Mire?" by Viva Health (2019)2

  2. Much Better for the Climate with More Sustainable Use of Land and Water, and Fewer Pollutants: Lab meat produces 79% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 98% less land, 82-92% less water, and uses much less energy (Viva!, 2019)2. From another source - calculations indicate that cultured meat grows could use up to 60% less energy for pork, sheep and beef (although artificial chicken would use more), and they would produce perhaps as little as one tenth of the greenhouse gasses, whilst using 98% less land3.

  3. Removal of Huge Quantities of Antibiotics from the Food Chain: Livestock consume large quantities of antibiotics to try to control disease amongst tightly-packed animals; this contributes to the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria, especially over the long-term. Synthetic foods are grown in a sterile and controlled environment, where antibiotics can be much more specific and used in much lower doses.1,2

  4. Avoidance of Crowded-Animal Diseases which cause intermittent havoc to supply chains, and sometimes even jump into humans (where they become known as zoonotic diseases), as has happened with chicken flu. Animal products are the biggest source of disease in the food industries of the USA, Europe and Canada. Synthetic meat is grown in sterile and controlled conditions and would greatly reduce bird flu, swine flu, BSF, foot and mouth and bovine TB2, and also "avoiding Salmonella, E. coli, Capylobacter and other nasties"1.

  5. Healthier and More Nutritious Than Slaughter Meat1: Synthetic meat isn't subject to the unpredictable quality or degradations of natural flesh, nor the contaminants and chemicals used on farmed and factory-farmed animals. "We will be able to control not only its flavour but its nutritional composition as well"3 - nutrients can easily be added to the meat (i.e., more iron, more vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, etc) and the meat's bad contents (fat, etc) can be closely controlled.

  6. Predictable Quality with Less Waste: Animals are sometimes killed and then found unsuitable for butchering, and, an animal carcass contains much that has to be heavily processed before being used. Synthetic meat removes the factory processes, chemicals and waste that comes with animal agriculture.

  7. Scale of production of synthetic meat can be altered in sync with demand, without having to worry about what to do with surplus living animals - such decisions are rarely very good for the animals involved.

Animal welfare:

  1. No livestock needs to be kept in captivity, so, synthetic meat causes no animal suffering, requires no slaughter and no animal transportation.

  2. Vegetarians who abstain from meat because of their revulsion of the treatment of animals, could eat synthetically grown meat4.

  3. Rare and endangered animal meat can be produced without further damage to populations.1,3

2. When?

By the 1970s? In the 1920s, Winston Churchill predicted that cultured meat would be in use within 50 years3.

Researched by NASA in 2002 as part of an investigation into food production on long-haul space flights5. But since, positive results are only coming from the growing-plants-in-space route.

Soon? 2010? The Economist in 2006 reported on researchers who optimistically said "it will soon be possible to grow cultured meat in quantities large enough to offer the meat industry"1.

In 2012, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was offering a $1 million prize "for progress in producing meat from cells"6.

Not before 2020: P. K. Thornton in The Skeptical Inquirer (2010) accurately stated that "at least another decade of research is needed" before we can even begin to effectively confront the critical issues of scale and cost. He was right. And it seems that another ten years is still required.7

3. Problems

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Commonly stated disadvantages which are generally misguided:

For more on problems like these, see The Food Chain: 3.4. The Fear of New Food: Neophobia Trumps Rationalism.

There are some serious real problems with synthetic meat, and its development:

  1. Public Relations and Neophobia: The European Barometer poll in 2005 asked respondents across all 25 European countries (and a few prospectants), whether they approved of growing meat from cell cultures so that we do not have to slaughter farm animals. Over half disapproved (54%), and only 6% of EU citizens thought that such meat should be grown for general use.8 The Viva! vegan research and animal welfare group state outright that they do not consider synthetic meat to be vegan even once animal derivitives are removed from its growth process2.

  2. Foetal Bovine Serum: Development of in-vitro meat production is still using Foetal Bovine Serum, which is... "as bad as it sounds... cruelly derived from the foetuses of dairy cows"2. Companies that are developing in-vitro meat, such as Memphis Meats and Mosa Meats are absolutely refusing to create commercial products that use FBS (quite rightly), and are trying to develop non-animal growth mediums2. But at some point, it might be better to give up than to continue with research that still does require FBS. Avoiding it will require a future where we first understand foetal growth media much better, and then go back to looking at recreating synthetic meat methods - but it's quite possibly 50 years into the future until our biotech can progress without indulging in awful practices like FBS extraction.

  3. Synthetic Meats May Never Attain Enough Market to Properly Reduce Animal Suffering. Current trends see the popularity of plant-based vegan food and its quality and diversity all increasing. It seems more likely that vegan protein and food products will be able to match meat-quality texture and weight well before synthetic meats finish development, and, the plant-based protein will prove to be acceptable to a much greater range of people. This is reducing animal agriculture; whereas synthetic meats are a very difficult sell - immovable meat-eaters are likely to shun it, as are vegans who are established happily in the higher-quality vegan food that we now have available. The synthetic market may only ever fill a niche; and given its expense and small-scale, may never have the oomph to become large enough to do much help in reducing the cruelties of animal agriculture.