Lab-grown meat could be the future of food — but possibly not in our lifetimes: experts | CBC Radio

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The Current24:29Will lab-grown meat ever reach our plates?

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What’s cultivated, meat-like, and could help lower greenhouse gas emissions? Lab-grown meat — and it could be the future of protein.

Sometimes known as cultured meat, lab-grown meat is unlike plant-based alternatives from companies such as Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods. Instead, it’s made by taking a few stem cells from an animal’s muscle, then placing them in a nutrient broth where they multiply and are triggered to turn into muscle fibres.

Crucially, it can all be done without killing the animal. Studies have shown that meat production causes nearly 60 per cent of the agriculture industry’s greenhouse gas emissions, meaning lab-grown meat could be one of the many answers to climate change reform. 

But there’s no estimate on when lab-grown meat may hit grocery stores.

Cultivated meat could be a solution to climate change — but not the only one, according to sociologist Neil Stephens. (David Parry/Pool/Reuters)

Brooklyn-based writer Joe Fassler has spent several years covering the cultured meat industry, and estimates that lab–grown meat might not even be a reality in our lifetimes. 

That’s because the technology is not all there yet, and recent layoffs have scaled the industry back, he said.

“I think what we can all agree on now is the technology is not in a place where it can support a billion-dollar private industry right now,” he told The Current

Isha Datar, executive director of non-profit research institute New Harvest, agrees that it’s hard to get a sense of when we could potentially see lab-grown meat in stores, but still stays on the optimistic side. 

“We’re seeing enormous climate impacts coming out of farming animals for food,” she said. “So we really do need to think about alternative ways to be producing protein for our growing population.” 

Even if not in her lifetime, she says it’s still a worthy cause to pursue — because, if successful, cellular agriculture could potentially “diversify our food system.”

And while real meat has effectively fed people worldwide, Datar said the reality of climate change could soon put it out of business. 

“We have such enormous densities in some of our farms that it’s leading to epidemic viruses being created, such as avian flu and swine flu,” said Datar. “And we’re seeing enormous climate impacts coming out of farming animals for food.”

“We really do need to think about alternative ways to be producing protein for our growing population.”

Not a ‘near-term climate solution’

Fassler says there are other codes to crack to make lab-grown meat thrive. 

Cost is one of them, and making this cultivated meat in a way that makes sense economically. 

“The challenge here is not to grow the cells. That’s been happening for decades in the pharmaceutical industry,” said Fassler. 

“The issue here is how to reliably grow cells in vast quantities at a cost that makes sense for food. And that’s what no one really knows how to do.” 

WATCH: Taste test of the world’s first lab-grown burger in 2013

Artificial meat taste test

The world’s first lab grown stem-cell burger is cooked and eaten at a London demonstration

It’s true that picking up a piece of lab-grown meat will be pricey. In 2013, the first lab-grown burger patty was made in a Netherlands lab for around $425,000.

And while we could see approvals, Fassler says companies might not be able to keep up making these products at a scale that will feed a large number of people in an economic way. 

He said analyses have shown that producing lab-grown meat in large quantities would need large reactors — the vessels where the cells grow and multiply. But most that are large enough aren’t currently used to produce cultured meat.

“Imagine these big stainless steel vessels that are over 200,000 litres in volume. And those don’t exist for animal cell culture. That’s 10 times bigger than the largest reactors the pharmaceutical industry has ever used,” he said.

What’s more, this won’t be a “near-term climate solution,” he says.

“This is not going to be a climate solution on a time scale that matters. If we’re going to stay below certain critical thresholds in the Paris Agreements, emissions have to decline 43 per cent by 2030,” he said.

“If cultivated meat was ready to go now, it would still take that long just to build out the infrastructure that we need.”

A bigger idea

Sociologist Neil Stephens, worries that if people view cultivated meat as the perfect answer to climate change, many will stop looking at the bigger picture.

“A big problem here is that it’s being represented as a solution — and perhaps as the solution … which sometimes means that people don’t have to think so broadly about other solutions,” said Stephens, who is also an associate professor in technology and society at the University of Birmingham.

For now, Datar said new scientific milestones will be more useful than more money in making lab-grown meat more widely available.

Three slabs of steaks
‘We really do need to think about alternative ways to be producing protein for our growing population,’ said Isha Datar, executive director of non-profit research institute New Harvest. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“We’re talking about growing something as complicated as tissue and then selling it at a very low volume. So when you think about that, the three billion dollars that has been raised in the field has been spread out amongst 20 plus, maybe even 100 companies.” 

That’s not a lot of money on the biopharmaceutical scale, she said, adding that major scientific advancements often come from “public, government-funded academic routes.”

Whatever milestones we reach, Datar is still skeptical about a timeline.

“I don’t think this idea of this kind of purist version of meat entirely grown from cells outside of an animal is very feasible in our lifetimes,” she said.

“[But] I think we will find something that resembles it… we might find a product on our plate that is mostly plant based with cell cultured elements.”

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