Test-Tube-Treat: The Future Of Lab-Grown Meat

Phoebe Raine

With 2020 being the year of dystopia becoming reality, Singapore’s decision to approve chicken meat grown in a lab poses some interesting questions about the future of feeding our growing population. 

‘“No eyes or beak or anything, they don’t need those…this thing feels no pain”’ says a scientist in Atwood’s dystopian fiction Oryx and Crake, referring to the headless, pulsating “chicken” mass that makes “chickienobs”, a lab-created chicken product. When this book came out in 2003, the idea of chicken meat grown in labs was still virtually the stuff of speculation and fictional shock-factor. Now in 2020, fiction has become fact with great leaps forwards in growing meat in petri dishes and test tubes.

What is lab-grown meat?

In simple terms, lab-grown meat is real meat, without the mass slaughter. One animal is slaughtered, in order to obtain primary cells (these can be fat cells, stem cells or muscle cells). These cells are then put into a petri dish with a liquid growth medium (containing proteins, vitamins, sugars and all other things the cells need to grow), then put into a bioreactor. Here they will grow until they become something resembling meat. Just one stem cell sample is said to produce enough muscle tissue, ‘to make 80,000 quarter-pound hamburgers’. 

What are the benefits of lab-grown meat? 

Lab-grown meat requires approximately 95% less land use than our current meat-producing methods.

With the expectation of the population reaching 9 billion humans by 2050, scientists are desperately trying to solve the big problem; how to feed this many people? The prospect, then, of vast quantities of meat being produced from very few animals, is an elegant and appealing one.

Lab-meat drastically reduces the number of animals needing to be killed, and thus this process paves the way for reduced farming needs and lesser environmental damage from farming. Lab-grown meat requires approximately 95% less land use than our current meat-producing methods. From this perspective, we can see how the environmental implications could be great, with reduced methane production and much less need for deforestation. With other protein sources being explored, such as insects that could be bred in cities, an environmentally friendly future for the food industry is certainly a feasible one.

The cleanliness of meat grown in labs is certainly an appealing one

If reduced land use isn’t enough to sway you to the side of the lab-grown produce, it is worth considering that COVID-19 most likely arose from unhygienic wet markets. A pandemic of this kind could be completely avoided in the future through meat grown in laboratories, as cross-contamination is unlikely. The cleanliness of meat grown in labs is certainly an appealing one, as is the notion that we will know a lot more about our food. No longer will we have to worry about the steroids injected into chickens. No longer will we have to worry about fat content, as this can be controlled in the lab. In many aspects, lab-grown means worry-less.

What are the downsides to lab-grown meat? 

However, we need to consider that things of wonder often have a darker side. Whilst this new way of creating meat has many benefits, it is also still very much “in the works”. Currently, creating this meat product is an expensive ordeal, with leading companies placing their lab-grown chicken nugget at $50. This price, although decreased dramatically from its original cost, is still a far cry from the £3.99 for 20 nuggets we enjoy from certain fast-food chains.

With nuggets in mind, it is also significant that current lab-grown meat is only produced for burgers, nuggets, and other mushy-textured items. It is the current battle between the big corporations to try and grow meat to the texture and appearance of a real steak or slice of chicken. With various solutions being explored, including some interesting uses of hollowed-out spinach and artichokes, this creation of a more familiar structure of meat is a potential. But, as of yet, we remain with meaty mush… yum!

My sarcastic declaration of “yum” exemplifies another issue with lab-grown; the ick-factor. Whilst many people are happy to eat a real chicken, the prospect of eating a test-tube-treat can send people squirming away from their plates. With the fact that you still have to kill animals to create the lab-meat, a vegan and vegetarian audience may still not be keen, and meat-eaters may be put off by a new, non- “purebred” form of meat. The same issue arises with religious groups, many of whom will have to consider whether lab-grown meat is allowed within their cultures. The implication of this reluctance can be monumental as, if there is no consumer, then the drive and money to create cheaper and better lab-meat deteriorates, and thus the future of lab-meat may be under threat.

So, what happens now? 

It remains a question as to whether you personally will be buying it

It is most likely that we will be seeing lab-meat on the supermarket shelves in our lifetimes, but it remains a question as to whether you personally will be buying it. On the limited research I have done, I would be willing to eat meat that has not cost hundreds of animals and plants (in deforestation) their lives. As somebody who needs the iron and protein (and admittedly loves the taste of a good sausage), semi guilt-free meat seems like a golden solution. However, the cost and the strangeness of this dystopian concept will certainly cause some issues, and, who knows what issues may arise in the future of lab-meat. New information is being discovered each day about this future of food, but for now, it really is the future us’s problem.

Phoebe Raine

Please note the sources I used were up to date to the best of my knowledge at the time of writing this article, but science changes quickly. 

Article image one courtesy of Bill Oxford via Unsplash. Image license found here.

Article image two courtesy of Miguel Andrade via Unsplash. Image license found here.

Featured image courtesy of Jordan Whitt via Unsplash. Image license found here.

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