Cultured Meat

Cultured meat, or meat grown from cells in a petri dish, has been the dream of science fiction authors, futurist vegans, and other visionaries for years. Earlier this month that dream appeared to take one step close to becoming reality when nutritional scientist Hanni Rutzler and author Josh Schonwald participated in the very first public taste test of cultured meat made by Dr. Mark Post and his team at Maastricht University. Their review of the burger appeared to be mainly positive, though they noted that it was lacking in fat.  The event was widely covered in the media and generated a lot of discussion across the internet, especially among vegans and science bloggers.

Many reacted with enthusiasm including the hosts of one of my favorite podcasts, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, in their latest episode. However not everyone was as excited. Another skeptical blogger, Dr. Ricky, makes some good points in their response to the panel,

First problem: the Skeptics actually used the term “peak meat” – that there’s an impending shortage of meat due to increasing demand, echoing the talking point that cultured beef technology solves a food security problem. Meat is a dispensable part of the human diet, can come from multiple sources, and beef itself is a luxury meat. Most of the world does not consume beef regularly because of cost. It has a lower cultural impact that you would expect on a global scale – unless you’re viewing it from a privileged First Worlder point of view.

I would add that along with the dispensability of meat in the human diet, there already exist a wide variety of nutritious meat alternatives of many different types. Some of which are indistinguishable from the real thing. With great alternatives already on the market why not focus on vegan advocacy to build further demand and access?

And just how ethical is the current incarnation of cultured meat? Most people are aware that the necessary starter cells must be gathered from an animal. Though this can be done today using a relativity harmless biopsy, it still presents some ethical problems. Unless the cell lines can be made immortal it would still necessitates the ongoing use of animals as Dr. Post explains,

Eventually my vision is that you have a limited herd of donor animals in the world that you keep in stock and that you get your cells form there.

Dr. Diana Fleischman points out the even larger issue of Fetal Bovine Serum in her piece on the Sentientist blog,

in vitro cells are grown on a substrate called “Fetal Bovine Serum” (FBS) (as detailed in this fact sheet from Maastricht University). Here is an excerpt from an article, “The use of fetal bovine serum: ethical or scientific problem?”. Keep in mind that the description here is derived from less than 4% of FBS harvesters that supplied technical information to the authors.

The bovine fetuses from which blood is drawn for (commercial) FBS production are obtained from pregnant cows which are sent to slaughter for reasons such as crippling lameness, or when slaughtering herds of extensively kept beef cattle…Fetuses should be at least 3 months old; otherwise the heart is too small for puncture…Bovine fetal blood is commonly harvested by cardiac puncture…At the time of slaughter, the cow is found to be pregnant during evisceration (removal of the internal organs in the thorax and abdomen during processing of the slaughtered cow). The reproductive tract is removed from the carcass…The calf is removed quickly from the uterus and the umbilical cord is tied off….A cardiac puncture is performed by inserting a needle between the ribs directly into the heart of the unanaesthesised fetus and blood is extracted under vacuum into a sterile blood collection bag via a tube. In the absence of a vacuum pump, fetal blood may be obtained by means of gravity or massage.

The article goes on to explore whether or not the fetus can feel pain but the calf’s mother who is eviscerated certainly can and thus it’s a huge stretch to say something that involves slaughter and evisceration is “cruelty free”.

For ethical vegans in particular this is a huge stumbling block. Dr. Ricky explains further,

The efficiency [of FBS] is far from ideal as well – it takes a lot of fetuses worth of serum to grow a single patty of “cultured beef”. In a weird sense, we are killing cattle to feed the “cruelty free” cultured beef. Media coverage is quick to handwave this requirement away as some small technical glitch that will be solved eventually, replacing FBS with a sustainable, non animal destroying substitute.  This does not exist, and the quest to make a synthetic replacement for FBS has been going on for decades – and we are nowhere near an acceptable solution.

Fetal Bovine Serum is not just an issue for cultured meat but for many types of science including vaccine production and other research. Perhaps PETA would do better by offering that million dollars for a suitable serum replacement first. I personally feel that our resources are better spent in improving and promoting the awesome alternatives to meat that already exist. It’s not that I think cultured meat it is a horrible idea in itself, just that I really don’t see it being a realistic alternative anytime soon.

So is this really something to get excited about? Is it worth expending significant resources on? From my perspective not really. This project, while scientifically interesting, still involves a good deal of entirely unnecessary suffering and exploitation. Even if this project were entirely free of animal use there is still the issue of cost and scalability. Currently cultured meat is no where near a marketable price (at £200,000 a burger) and the process is far from being resource efficient. Even the project’s lead researcher, Dr. Mark Post, has said, “Vegetarians should remain vegetarian. That’s even better for the environment.” Perhaps future advances will be able to address these issues, but for now we shouldn’t hold our breath. In reality there is no need to wait to address the issues purported to be addressed by cultured meat. By going vegan you can begin to help animals and reduce the impact of meat production now, not in some hypothetical future.

Further Resources:

Will in vitro meat become cruelty free? on The Sentientist

Lab Meat on The Vegan Option podcast

Vat Meat on The Vegan Scientist

Why Lab-Grown Meat is the Future of Food by Ingrid Newkirk

The Future of Food, Why Lab Grown Meat is Not the Solution by Jasmijn de Boo

6 Responses to “Cultured Meat”

  1. Richard Stafursky Says:

    The lab meat stories demonstrate that alternatives to killing of animals for human food are at least on the radar. We cannot feed meat to 7 billion people without guilt. Guilt that we are destroying the Planet. Guilt that we now confine our children to crowded cities. Guilt that we torture, kill and eat our fellow animals on this Species’ Planet. The true test of cultured meat will be if it can replace fish ponds NASA’s plans for space colonies. At the end of this 21st century will people carry carnivorous behavior to other planets? What does this say about mankind?

  2. mem_somerville (@mem_somerville) Says:

    I actually don’t think it would be that hard to replace the FBS eventually. In fact, I grew muscle cell cultures for my PhD thesis. The myoblasts were maintained in FBS but the trigger to get them to fuse and mature was switching them to horse serum. (Not that it is hugely better–but less invasive at least).

    I like your idea of PETA funding some of that research. I think our tools are better now and we could find the components.

  3. Luis Tovar (@Luis_Tovar) Says:

    The probability of it working is near zero. And so far it has cost the lives of at least 2400 fetal calves and 2400 mothers Here’s an article i wrote on it last year, explaining many of the fundamental problems:

    Meat accounts for less than half of the animals exploited and killed for humans. Animals are used for dairy, eggs, experiments, entertainment, leather, fur, and the list goes on. And you are making a lot of guesses too, Christine. How do you know that in vitro meat would in time taste the same as meat? What about cost, we don’t know if the cost would be the same, either. Even if they did taste the same, people would have to care what happens to the animals to choose in vitro meat over the “real thing,” and if they care enough to choose in vitro meat, why not plant foods?

    PETA pledged a $1 million reward to whoever produced the first commercially viable in vitro meat. Just think how much vegan/animal rights education could be done instead with that $1 million! What a terrible waste of money it would be to spend it rewarding someone for producing a technology that reduced animal suffering but still exploited animals when instead it could be spent educating people about animal RIGHTS (which the so-called “father of animal rights” Peter Singer doesn’t even believe in). If there is a significant prospect of producing commercially viable in vitro meat, animal agribusiness will promote it. They don’t need and shouldn’t get the help of animal rights activists.

    In a brief:

    1) It gives the excuse that “oh, I’ll keep eating meat until because soon they’ll be making it in labs anyway” (no need to change diet or any of that).

    2) Legitimises the concept that humans “need” or “should eat” meat.

    3) Based mostly on 1 and 2, it will perpetuate the suffering and exploitation of animals in the long term, as people will see “real meat” as a true (and genuinely “luxurious”) luxury item, and be willing to pay a lot for it, so regardless of whatever environmentally-sound taxes and lack of subsidies, there would be animal farming and slaughtering based on the perpetuation if this myth.

  4. PythagoreanCrank (@PythaCrank) Says:

    I hear the “we don’t need this technology” type of arguments against GMO all the time. I’m not sure what this means though. Are we to have some sort of panel by which we could deem what is worthy to study, develop or produce?

    Of course the technology to make synthetic meat has huge technical hurdles but that’s true of many technologies. There may be a breakthrough to bring this to market and there may not. Who cares? I still think it’s worth a try and I’m cheering them on! Let’s bring all tools to the table.

    • skepticalvegan Says:

      The difference for me is that while I can clearly see some advantages to genetic engineering over other breeding techniques in some circumstances, I am having trouble seeing any advantages to cultured meat over plant & fungus based alternatives (I mean the good ones like Beyond Meat). Ultimately its the suffering that I see as unnecessary and I just dont see a point in using the resources of vegan orgs promoting a product that involves that. I also dont see much point in going out of my way to oppose it other than stating my opinion in single blog post. The research will continue regardless of what I think, science, public perception ,and the market will hash it out in the end.

  5. unethical_vegan Says:

    Xeno-free supplements that can replace FBS for even the most difficult to grow cells are available.

    Human and mouse embryonic stem cells are one example:

    Nevertheless, I believe that vitro meat will always be incredibly resource intensive because the production of sufficient xeno-free nutrients, hormones and scaffolds will be an enormous industrial effort. Since I maintain that “resource use” may cause more net harm than animal husbandry, I am skeptical of any overall “ethical” benefit from in vitro meat. Moreover, I suspect that food scientists and chemists will generate authentically meaty-tasting plant protein preparations long before in vitro meat is near commercial release (e.g. Sandhill Foods).

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