A small number of visionary scientists are today working in the field of cellular agriculture to discover ways to grow animal muscle tissue outside the body of a living animal. The resultant tissue, which has already been produced in small amounts, is real muscle tissue in every sense and its production involves no animal suffering. Known today most commonly as clean meat and variously as in vitro meat (IVM), cultured meat, mock meat, test tube meat, or even the ludicrous, shmeat, it could be on American supermarket shelves within the next few years if a vegan cell culture medium can be developed. At the moment foetal bovine serum, harvested from cows slaughtered by the meat industry, is used and clearly this is unacceptable. To create clean meat, the mature muscle cells from which most meat is comprised, are grown in a culture in a bioreactor from either stem cells or muscle tissue that has been (painlessly, they say) extracted from animals such as pigs or cattle.lxxiv Indeed, there is no technical reason why human muscle tissue couldn’t be grown using the same techniques, although one can imagine there would be many (mostly illogical) objections to this rather sanitised version of cannibalism.
In 2013, the first clean beef hamburger was tasted by a panel in front of journalists in London. The five-ounce patty at the heart of the burger—the appearance of which was enhanced with red beet juice and saffron—took three months to grow in the laboratory at a cost of more than $330,000 (expected to fall to $11 when the technology is scaled up).lxxv The panel found the burger to be ‘almost’ like a conventional one (whatever that means). lxxvi
Growing all meat in bioreactors would not only eliminate the industrial levels of animal suffering we see today in the meat industry, it would have far-reaching environmental benefits as well because in vitro methods produce just a fraction of the methane associated with modern animal agricultural practices and require 45% less energy, 99% less land, and 96% less water. lxxvii Savings of this magnitude ensure the future of this technology provided it can be successfully scaled up and its waste products dealt with properly. These are big hurdles and the technology has some way to go; but it is nevertheless a space worth watching.
Other advantages of clean meat over today’s meat are: harmful saturated fats can be replaced with essential Omega-3 fatty acids during production; the incidence of foodborne pathogens, such as Salmonella and E.coli, which cause millions of episodes of illness annually, can be greatly reduced in a sterile production environment, the risk of contracting BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), otherwise known as Mad cow disease, reduced to nearly zero and exposure to pesticides and the traces of arsenic, dioxins and hormones that are associated with today’s meat production methods, also greatly reduced.lxxviii
When the advantages are as great as these it would be surprising if every hamburger, hot dog and can of pet food was not being sourced from either lab-grown meat, or a plant-based alternative, in the next couple of decades. Ground beef products will come off the production line first because their structure is more easily obtainable, but in time there will be steaks that are indistinguishable from those we slice off the carcasses of dead animals today. The important difference being; no bovine will need to suffer and give up its life in order to produce them.
Plant-based meat alternatives
Exciting as the prospect of clean meat is, and its future is bright, it is not the only alternative to abattoir meat that science offers. Plant-based foods, some of which resemble meat in texture, taste and appearance, are coming onto the market in greater numbers each year and may have even greater commercial potential than clean meat because they can be manufactured more efficiently. In fact, even Professor Mark Post, whose team at Maastricht University in the Netherlands was responsible for producing the clean meat patty in 2013, says that if a time comes when people are unable to tell the difference between clean meat and plant-based meat alternatives, there will be no place for clean meat.lxxix I think that’s a bit pessimistic because it seems likely there will always be people who want to eat meat regardless, and who will be prepared to pay a higher price for it.
Fortunately, companies developing plant-based meat substitutes have attracted funding from philanthropists like Bill Gates and Richard Branson, and it is encouraging to note that demand for value-added vegetarian products increased in the United States by 8% between 2010 and 2012. It is predicted that the ‘meat alternative’ market will experience a compound annual growth rate of 8.4% and be valued at $5.2 billion globally by 2020. lxxx Promising, yes, but still miniscule compared to current meat and dairy production. For example, in 2013 meat and poultry sales in the US totalled $198 billion, and the industry, overall, represented about 6% of the country’s gross domestic product, contributing $864.2 billion. Based on these numbers we can see how far there is to go, but as the differences between animal tissue and its vegan shadow become harder to detect, demand for plant-based meat alternatives will grow rapidly, and not just among vegans and vegetarians, but among meat-eaters keen to reduce their risk of chronic disease.