Cultured meat: Good or bad, promise or peril?

Jonathan Knutson
Forum News Service

Across America, people both in and out of agriculture are hearing more about cell-based meat, aka “clean meat” and “fake meat,” among other terms. Whether cell-based meat is a good thing or a bad thing — whether it holds promise or peril — depends on who you ask.

To Vitor Espirito Santo, associate director of cellular agriculture for JUST, a San Francisco-based food company that expects to begin selling lab-grown chicken within a year, cell-based meat involves “changing the food system” to benefit consumers and the environment.

Cell-based meat takes cells from animals and grows the cells using liquid solutions in controlled conditions in a laboratory.

To Alison Van Eenennaam, University of California-Davis Extension specialist in animal biotechnology and genomics, proponents of cell-based meat are “overhyping the environmental benefits” and providing an incomplete, misleading case for it.

And to Ginger Hultin, a registered dietitian and Seattle-based spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, cell-based meat offers promise — but also requires more research and data.

Despite the disagreements, there’s consensus that cell-based meat still faces major challenges, particularly marketing and gearing up for large-scale production. Even proponents say cell-based meat won’t be widely available for at least five years.

Supporters say

Advocates of cultured meat say it’s beneficial and even necessary. Their arguments typically involve some combination of human health, the global environment and animal welfare.

Kristopher Gasteratos, founder and president of the Cellular Agriculture Society, referred questions about cellular ag to his organization’s website, which identifies “three sets of concern” involving “the world’s large supply of farmed animals.”

According to the web site, the three are:

  • People: “People often get sick from animal products that are contaminated like meat and the growing population in the coming decades will require a higher demand for animal products than we can currently produce.”
  • Animals: “Animals live in crowded, unnatural conditions which can be harmful for them, and they need to be killed in large quantities to supply the world with animal products.”
  • World: “The world does not have enough environmental resources to produce for all of the farm animals; there isn’t enough food, water, and land to provide to them sustainably.”
‘Nothing fake about it’

JUST, the San Francisco-based food company that hopes to start selling cell-based meat within a year, was launched eight years ago. Its goal, then and now, is “changing the food system using more sustainable ingredients and approaches to provide nutritious and safe products to consumers,” Santo said.

He referred to the product as “cultured meat,” adding that “lab-grown meat is not a term we’re particularly fond of.”

And, “I don’t agree at all with fake meat,” a term often used by critics of it, Santo said. “It really is animal protein. There’s definitely nothing fake about it. Just the process is different.”

Cultured meat and conventional meat come from the same source, have the same “starting materials” and are provided the same nutrients, but in different form — in liquid solutions instead of the feed used for conventional meat, Santo said.

“I really believe consumers can feel confident about trying this. It’s a lot more similar (to conventional meat) than they might expect,” he said.

Skeptic: Data needed

Skeptics say much more data is needed to support the argument that cell-based meat on a large scale would provide major environmental benefits.

“Show me the data. What I don’t like at the moment is people who are supporting (cell-based meat) just look at one side of the picture without looking at the trade-offs,” said Van Eenennaam, the University of California-Davis scientist

“Producing cell-based meat) does require inputs. It’s not a free lunch,” she said.

Because cell-based meat isn’t produced now on a large scale, nobody knows how energy would be required to do so, she said, noting that grass eaten by cattle on the range grows with the help of free solar energy.

And it’s a mistake to look at “cows only as hamburger. Dairy cattle in particular are so productive. They produce milk, and then go to become hamburger. If you’re only looking at the hamburger component, you’re ignoring a lot,” she said.

Cows also provide what’s known as ecosystem services — controlling invasive weeds in pastures, for example — that benefit the people and the environment, Van Eenennaam said.

She thinks cell-based meat might eventually become “a niche market” in the United States but won’t ever be a major player in global meat production.

Nutritionists say

Many Americans are increasingly concerned with the quality of the food they eat, so nutritionists — who influence food choices — potentially could play a major role in the extent to which cell-based meat is accepted by consumers.

Asked for its evaluation of cell-based meat, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which has its headquarters in Chicago, said it hasn’t taken a stance. The organization also emailed its written position on vegetarian diets and referred questions to Hultin.

Hultin said cell-based meat is an important subject that holds both challenges and potential benefits, especially in helping to feed the world’s fast-growing population.

But more data and research is needed to fully assess cell-based meat — and consumers ultimately will decide whether to support it, she said.

The status of the cow is closely intertwined with discussions about cell-based meat.
“Livestock, especially ruminants like beef cattle, play a key role in a sustainable food system. They allow us to produce food on marginal lands that are unsuitable for cultivated agriculture. Cattle act as “upcyclers” in our food system — they upgrade plants into high quality protein for people,” a U.N. report says.