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Lab grown meat: revolutionary or disastrous?

meat being cut with a fork and knife

On August 5, 2013 on live television, Dutch scientist Mark Post lifted a lid to reveal a plate of hamburger meat. Your typical McDonalds Big Mac is about five dollars, but this burger patty cost a quarter of a million dollars to make. The cow from which the meat was sourced was still alive — skeletal muscle cells were painlessly extracted from the cow and grown into billions of cells that then formed muscle fibers. These were the basis for the world's first cultivated meat burger, and it had the potential to change the meat industry forever.

Post is the co-founder of Mosa Meat, a company dedicated to bringing cultivated meat to the market. “By now, we know that livestock produce a lot of greenhouse gasses, so current production methods are terrible for the environment,” Post explained in a video on Mosa Meat’s Youtube channel. He’s not wrong; in fact, meat and dairy production is responsible for 14.5% of global carbon emissions, and close to 90% of these emissions come from the production and digestion of the livestock feed (Wilde 2022).

But is lab grown meat actually better for the environment? Lab grown meat is already far more expensive than normal meat to produce, but the environmental consequences may be just as drastic. A new study performed by researchers at UC Davis has sparked debate among the scientific community, as it shows that the carbon footprint of lab grown meat may be four to twenty five times more than that of current meat in some situations (Quinton 2023). However, the study assumes that current ingredients used to feed the cells are pharmaceutical grade rather than food grade, among other assumptions.

“If we are using production methods typical of the pharmaceutical industry, it requires really resource intensive ingredients to grow this material than if we grow it in a food production environment,” said Edward Spang, one of the authors of the study, in an interview with KCRA. This extra cost is a result of the higher purity standards of pharmaceutical grade ingredients.

However, this doesn’t quite reflect the reality of the situation. For example, scientists at Mosa Meat have confirmed that cell feed formulated with food grade ingredients perform equally well as those made from pharmaceutical ingredients and have replaced 99.2% of their feed with food grade ingredients, implying lower energy and financial costs as production is scaled up (Mosa Meat 2023).

Nevertheless, whether the solution is cost effective compared to regular meat remains to be seen as cultivated meat enters the market. While it no longer costs thousands of dollars to produce cultivated hamburger meat, it’s still more expensive than regular meat. There are high costs associated with building and operating bioreactors, the facilities in which the cultivated meat is produced. In addition, the ingredients used to feed the cells aren’t cheap regardless of whether they’re food grade or pharmaceutical grade.

“We’re going to have to think about how we feed these cells, and what they’re really going to require is a low cost ingredient mix that is not very resource intensive,” said Spang. Cultivated meat may prove beneficial in the long run — provided that costs are driven down. It depends entirely on whether cultivated meat is able to succeed commercially: in other words, whether the promise of a greener future outweighs the opportunity cost of a few extra dollars for the average meat consumer.

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