There has always been one clear characteristic that defines meat; it comes from an animal. Many people enjoy having food from a natural source. People can be very skeptical of changes to the natural order, as demonstrated by some people’s aversion to GMOs. However a field of bold entrepreneurs and scientists are daring to prove the skeptics and luddites wrong.
Clean meat. Cultured meat. In-vitro meat. All terms that mean one thing: the meat is grown in a lab. What this means is that the meat does not come from livestock, but the animal tissue is put in an environment that allows it to grow despite not actually being part of a living animal. The cells come from living animals, and are then put into a growth environment. The environment tricks the cells into behaving as if they are still a part of the animal, and they must be fed oxygen, vitamins, and a serum as normal growth would require.
Society already has a large cost effective and reliable way of obtaining meat. Why try to mimic nature? The most obvious reason is to remedy ethical issues. Clearly animals are not being killed nor mistreated in poor factory conditions using this lab meat alternative, and PETA has long been an investor in the industry. The other big issue with the livestock industry is its environmental concerns. One clean meat startup, claims that widespread use of its meat can reduce livestock emissions by 90 percent. Some estimates suggest that livestock makes up nearly 15 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted worldwide.
There are a number of startups attempting to bring clean meat to consumers. One leading company in the field was founded in 2015 and has been invested in by Bill Gates. Another startup claims it will have products available for purchase by the end of 2018. Products are not yet available due to the high cost of production, a key issue that multiple firms are racing to alleviate.
Affordability is not the only obstacle. Another challenge is the so called “uncanny valley.” The uncanny valley is a hypothesis that can be applied to things that are very close replicas, yet somewhat off. The idea is that the replica is good enough that the brain is fully expecting the real deal. However, when a discrepancy is picked up it causes a negative reaction, which leads to an uncomfortable feeling. This concept applies to lab meat as any discrepancies that it has to meat from livestock can cause an uncomfortable feeling in the consumer.
Another challenge is that a lab grown chicken wing or lambchop is a long way away. The cells can grow into basic muscle or fat; however, the makeup of a true animal’s body parts are far more complex. For this reason, the meat more closely mimics ground beef than a steak. Food items like sausage or chicken nuggets can be produced more easily as they do not require the meat to have a strongly intact physical structure.
Will there be a market for this product? The startups clearly seem to think so, and they may be right. Consider that in the past three years there has been a stunning 600 percent increase in Americans who consider themselves vegan. Furthermore, if costs and taste are similar, then non-vegans would certainly also consider using these products. It is even possible that environmentally and ethically conscious consumers would be willing to pay slightly more for cultured meat.
Scientists will not be growing perfect animals thighs and body parts anytime soon, but in the near future there will at least be something. It won’t be perfect, but it will be the start.