This story was originally published by Mother Jones and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Lab meat — flesh grown in massive tanks instead of in the bodies of sentient animals — offers the promise of having our steak and eating it guilt-free, too. No vast amounts of water-polluting chemicals to grow feed crops; no low-paid, oft-injured slaughterhouse workers; no climate-warming gases from cow burps or manure lagoons, and no billions of animals slaughtered each year to satisfy our carnivory.
Once a staple only of science fiction, the stuff is poised to land on your dinner plate this year, at least according to boosters of the cultivated-meat industry (to use its preferred name). In Singapore — the only nation to approve lab meat for sale — you can already go to the JW Marriott South Beach hotel and order steamed chicken dumplings made with “real meat without slaughter” in the form of chicken cells grown by a U.S.-based company called Eat Just. And other cell-meat startups vow to bring products to market in 2022, pending regulatory approval.
Yet several obstacles hold back a new era of widely available animal-free burgers, nuggets and carnitas. The biggest involves something much less appetizing than chicken dumplings: the blood of cow fetuses, extracted from their mothers after slaughter.
The use of fetal bovine serum (FBS) in labs isn’t new. Scientists have had the ability to biopsy animal cells and keep them alive outside the body since the 1950s. These test-tube cells need food to flourish, and researchers found that fetal bovine serum provided the special sauce — the right combination of hormones to make cells hum. In the 1980s, FBS technology gave rise to tissue engineering — growing cells in vitro to replace small amounts of damaged or diseased tissue in people. Extending the same techniques into a new realm, today’s cell-based meat companies have relied largely on FBS to develop their products.
But a substance that works great for medical purposes (it’s also widely used in vaccine development) creates two huge problems for an industry seeking to mass-produce slaughter-free meat. The first is expense. FBS sells for upward of $1,000 per litre — a major reason why, to break even on expenses, companies would have to sell their cultured meat for about $200,000 per pound, a 2020 analysis from University of California, Davis, researchers found. That’s why companies like the one conducting product demos in Singapore aren’t breaking even; they’re losing money.
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The other big problem is optics: You can’t market your product as “slaughter-free,” let alone vegan, when you used a slaughterhouse byproduct to grow it. (Although Eat Just does just that with its Singapore chicken, which is made with a “very low level of bovine serum,” a spokesperson told Mother Jones.)
As a result, cultivated-meat companies are scrambling to find FSB substitutes. Such a “serum-free” growth medium exists, reports the Good Food Institute, a think tank that supports conventional-meat replacements. Trouble is, it currently costs nearly $400 per litre — still way too high to be commercially competitive.
“A whole new supply chain would need to form” to provide cheap serum-free growth media to lab-meat companies, says Christina Agapakis, a synthetic biologist who serves as creative director at Ginkgo Bioworks, a biotech firm. “And a lot of innovation in the biological manufacturing space will need to happen to make that possible.”
All of which means there’s some fine print on industry claims that lab meat will be on the market within the year: Even boosters don’t expect to see price-competitive cultured meat until 2030, while other analysts conclude that the FBS-replacement problem, plus other gaping challenges — like perfecting machines that can grow cells at industrial scale — means the stuff will likely never be economical.
So don’t hold your breath. If lab-meat startup execs are lucky, however, funders will be patient. In 2020 and the first half of 2021, investors poured more than $600 million into the space. Celebrity moguls Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Kimbal Musk, Sergey Brin, Peter Thiel, and John Mackey have all pitched in. And the gusher continues. In February, a started called Wildtype — intent on creating cell-based salmon — announced a $100-million infusion from investors including Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert Downey, Jr.
Maybe such deep-pocketed friends will float the industry long enough to work out the problems posed by replacing fetal bovine serum. In the meantime, the very real ecological and social catastrophes created by the mass production of livestock fester — and “slaughter-free” chicken specials in Singapore aren’t up to the task of slowing them down.
I'm confused.. isn't "lab
I'm confused.. isn't "lab meat" already commonly available in grocery stores and fast-food outlets? I purchase 'Beyond Meat' products often, and while more expensive than conventional meat (and to be honest, they aren't as tasty) but they certainly don't cost anywhere near $200,000/lb. It seems that the info. of interest here, particularly for those who care about animal welfare, is how much FBS is required to make a given amount of artificial meat?
Beyond Meat is a vegetarian
Beyond Meat is a vegetarian variant of beef. It is not lab grown but a mixture of dozens of ingredients. It is also very high in sodium and other additives. I encourage you to search it for yourself.
Beyond burgers are a vegan
Beyond burgers are a vegan plant based simulated beef burger...made entirely from plants....sodium present is 15%of daily intake per burger and less saturated fat than beef from cows....and needless to say much kinder.
Here's something that really
Here's something that really shouldn't be a secret. I'm an omnivore, and I'm not going to eat this frankenfood. Do you actually know anyone who will?
And are any vegetarians or vegans going to purchase or eat this stuff? Of course not.
Yup, I will once the price
Yup, I will once the price (which is currently very high, like any other product that is in the development stage) drops down and they figure out a different source other than bovine fetuses as nutrients. You have heard of the human caused climate change crisis, that is exacerbated by the animal agriculture industry, have you? Get your head out of the sand and don't try to speak for vegans or vegetarians - you don't know of what you speak.
Hmmm. What if the blood were
Hmmm. What if the blood were just drained from humans when they died. Free raw materials for serum, and come to think of it, serum from human blood is already a medical product ...
This article is ridiculous.
This article is ridiculous. Stop making problems where there aren’t any. When this technology takes off, we are going to be ending the slaughter of millions of innocent, suffering animals.
To the other commenter asking who is actually going to buy this, I answer you, I am, and surely many others or this technology wouldn’t be underway. I am constantly mystified as to why I seem to inhabit an oddly lonely category — I am not a vegan nor vegetarian, as I do not identify with their often militant, immature, and religious attitude toward these issues. But I am not a careless omnivore who thinks it’s okay to treat animals as we currently are. I personally am done eating sentient beings who have suffered and I’m truly disgusted to be sharing the human race with a vast majority who are not. It’s utterly barbaric, and it sure explains why it feels like I’m sharing the earth with savages — because I am.
I currently eat only eggs from a neighbor’s backyard hens, and other than that I live and shop like a “vegan”, ie someone who doesn’t think that a sweet living being no different from my dog deserves to be bred into exploitation and suffering and an early death for me to have a couch or shoes or lipstick or even dinner.
I will be first in line to buy lab grown meat and God willing I will never look back. My hope and guess is that when this technology takes off, humans will eventually hop onto the trend (as the masses usually do), and once we have the option to live slaughter-free, our relationship to animals will change. I believe that the cognitive dissonance will begin to melt and people will begin to acknowledge how barbaric and cruel it is to exploit and treat animals the way we have been.
To those who are confused by this technology and cannot differentiate it from “Beyond Meat”, I am equally disturbed. Lab-grown meat is actually meat, whereas “Beyond Meat” is a glorified veggie burger. It’s your same old crappy veg burger re-marketed, and it’s basically made of peas and chemicals. I hope for the sake of human nutrition that more people will understand our need for animal products in our diet as we are an omnivorous species (contrary to what vegans and vegetarians want to believe), and especially move away from processed, high-carb foods, which are what many vegan “alternatives” offer, and come to appreciate the necessity of the technology of lab-grown meat as our need to eliminate animal agriculture grows, if only environmentally and logistically (since most humans apparently are too dead inside to acknowledge the absolute tragedy of how we are currently relating to non-human animals).
As I said, to the writer, please stop creating dramatic, oppositional clickbait content to create a fake problem around something that is going to be good for the earth and for animals. Thank you!