Delicious and Disruptive: A Primer into Lab-Grown Meat
Written by: Jon Zhang ‘24
Edited by: Owen Wogmon ‘23
Disruptive technologies are everywhere. As you read this right now, you’re probably using a computer or some other electronic device that has fundamentally altered how we work, learn, and relax. Think of the iPhone or your Netflix account. Now think about the last time you used a flip phone or went to a Blockbuster store. Life as we know it has radically shifted from how it was even just 10 years ago. Many things we now take for granted were strange and novel at one point.
Today, there are many emergent technologies – like artificial intelligence and 3D printing – that may dramatically change how we live in the coming years. But I’d like to focus on something more intrinsic to our survival as human beings: how we eat.
Cultured meat, also referred to as lab-grown meat, may seem like a novel idea, but the concept of engineering meat for consumption has existed for nearly a century. The idea was first conceptualized in 1927, and Winston Churchill even speculated on its possibilities . The famed British statesman envisioned that mankind would escape the “absurdity” of raising whole chickens and grow consumable parts – such as the breasts or the wings – separately. Churchill hoped these products would be “practically indistinguishable” from the natural versions . It wasn’t until many years later that technology finally caught up with these ambitions. In 1997, NASA successfully grew goldfish muscle tissue to use as food for space travelers. Since then, the technology has only improved .
So, how exactly does this technology work? Conjuring animal flesh out of thin air sounds like the work of divine intervention, but the steps of meat synthesis are quite straightforward. The basic premise involves building up animal skeletal muscle out of embryonic precursor cells called myoblasts, which are extracted from an animal via biopsy. Once extracted from a donor, the cells are attached to a bioengineering scaffold, a support structure designed to promote cellular growth and proliferation. Muscle tissue is composed of many successive organizational levels, from the cellular level all the way up to larger and more complex fibers. The cells are placed into a device called a bioreactor, and, as the cells multiply, they coalesce into myotubes and then into larger myofibers. These fibers then bundle together to form muscle tissue resembling conventional meat .
Recent results have been promising, which has spurred significant investment and media attention. Companies like Eat JUST and Upside Foods have been synthesizing chicken from cells to considerable success. As recently as April 2022, the company Upside Foods raised $400 million from investors , and the global market is projected to hit $25 billion by 2030 .
While the industry remains in its infancy, the founders of these companies tout the transformative potential of lab-grown meat. For one, cultured meat significantly lessens the intensive practices associated with raising livestock, especially land conversion, water use, and animal feed. Livestock production is a significant contributor to global warming, so lab-grown meat presents a more eco-friendly substitute for conventional meat. Furthermore, cultured meat creates an attractive alternative for animal-rights proponents, as there is no need for slaughter. Others remain optimistic that the technology can be scaled up. Harvesting a small number of animal cells could produce exponentially higher yields than traditional agriculture, creating a surplus to alleviate world hunger .
This wouldn’t even be the first time the US meat industry has experienced a technological disruption. Perhaps there’s no better example than the invention and popularization of refrigerated train cars, which created the Chicago meat empire. During the Gilded Age, live cattle from Midwestern grazelands were packed into trains to be butchered later in the East. But, with the advent of refrigerated cars, the animals could be slaughtered in the Midwest without worries about spoilage. This eliminated the hassle of transporting live animals and was financially favorable, as pre-butchered beef was naturally lighter, and, thus, cheaper to ship by weight. With these economic advantages, the refrigerated train car significantly altered how the product was refined and transported, cementing Chicago as the nation’s meat capital .
Innovation has historically transformed the meat industry. While it’s been associated with benefits (especially for industry tycoons!), it’s never come without controversy. When new trends upend existing systems, consumer acceptability remains a key hurdle to overcome. During the Gilded Age, concerns over new meat industry practices provoked anxiety over quality and safety. Instead of meat being butchered and sold locally, it was now prepared far away, which aroused the mistrust of Eastern consumers. While Chicago meatpackers invested heavily in marketing their product, many consumers remained suspicious about the quality of pre-butchered beef. These concerns erupted into public outcry with the publication of The Jungle in 1906, wherein details of health violations and unsanitary practices generated momentum for the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the formation of the Food and Drug Administration, a federal agency dedicated to regulating food products like meat .
Similarly, criticisms are being levied at cultured meat today. Critics claim that the process disregards nature and could be scientifically risky. With human interference in producing food, opponents are concerned that new allergens and untested waste byproducts will be created . Critics also point out that many of the supposed benefits of cultured meat are still unproven. Arising from these concerns, activists launched the website Clean Meat Hoax in 2019, claiming that proponents of lab-grown meat are “perpetrating a fraud on the public” by pushing its unconfirmed benefits. As was the case during the Gilded Age, many consumers and advocates remain suspicious and emphasize caution surrounding transforming practices.
Cultured meat offers to shift the paradigm of meat-eating in the US and around the world. However, disruptive technologies always present new questions and concerns to ponder. Echoing historical patterns of innovation and resistance, alternative meat appears to represent just another phase of humanity’s complicated relationship with technology. Even as industries evolve, human attitudes and debates over new practices remain remarkably consistent. As society continues to innovate and confront existing issues, it’ll be intriguing to see what the future of lab-grown meat holds in store and how it will be shaped.
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