Commentary: Lab Grown Revolution: Clean Meat

You have been tasked with making beef. One option is to raise a cow. In doing this, you have to feed it, care for it, purchase a pasture, and clean up the cow’s smelly and unhygienic manure – which also emits the greenhouse gas methane. You must then wait 18 months, taser the animal into an unconscious state, stab it through an artery, and voilá: hamburger meat. Fortunately, this arduous method of supplying meat is no longer the only one. Instead, you can collect a cow muscle sample and – after waiting two months in a laboratory – enjoy a lab grown hamburger patty.

Lab grown meat, or “clean” meat, has gone from an idea straight out of a science fiction novel to a reality. The first successful lab grown burger was completed in 2013 through a two year project that cost $325,000. Today, the cost of making a clean burger has been reduced to $11, quickly closing in on Forbes’ $1.05 estimation for the average cost of a traditional burger patty. By 2020, clean meat is estimated to cost $2.30 to $4.50 a pound according to Agweb.

Let me make something clear: I love meat. Steak is one of my favorite meals, I often crave juicy hamburgers, and there are few foods I would choose over hot pot. However, in 2018 alone, over 30 million cattle were slaughtered nationwide, according to records from the United States Department of Agriculture. In a Scientific American article, ecologist David Pimentel of Cornell University reports, “If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million.”

In addition to considering the ethics of slaughtering millions of livestock, it is also critical to understand just how detrimental traditional meat production is to the environment. Raising livestock demands copious resources: pesticides, fertilizer, fuel, feed, and water. According to the Environmental Working Group, raising cattle releases up to 40 times as many greenhouse gas emissions as common vegetables and grains. These greenhouse gases include nitrous oxide and methane: chemicals dozens of times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The enormous size of pastures makes raising livestock even more inefficient. According to Bloomberg, land used for feeding livestock occupies 41 percent, or 654 million acres, of the contiguous United States. Ecological issues related to cattle are not limited to the U.S.; 75 percent of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has occurred due to cattle ranching, according to Global Forest Watch.

Compared to meat production with the advent of modern biotechnology, mass livestock slaughter appears increasingly inhumane, inefficient, and wasteful. Clean meat effectively solves the ecological issues of traditional meat production. To make it, scientists collect a muscle sample from an animal, extract the stem cells, and grow the primitive fibers until they imitate muscle tissue. Amazingly, Mosa Meat, a clean meat biotech company, claims that a single cow’s tissue sample yields enough muscle tissue to make up to 80,000 quarter-pounders. So, instead of condemning millions of cows to death, the beef industry could sustain meat production through growing cell cultures. Embracing clean meat and a future of lab grown foods is the first step in dismantling an environmentally and morally damaging meat industry.

The path to clean meat, however, will not be straightforward. Clean meat has garnered criticism from the traditional meat industry and various consumer organizations. In August 2018, Missouri became the first U.S. state to have a law stating that only animal flesh could be marketed as “meat,” according to USA Today. This law, passed in order to avoid shopper confusion and protect local farmers, directly targets clean meat production.

Furthermore, clean meat comes nowhere close to a ribeye or sirloin in shape or taste; it’s currently only able to supply passable quarter pounders. Is lab-grown meat kosher? Would vegetarians be willing to try lab-grown meat? Will the clean meat industry take market shares away from local farmers and put them into the hands of enormous biotech corporations?

And how does all of this fit into our lives at Andover? Perhaps the Grateful Burgers of Paresky Commons – currently 50 percent beef and 50 percent vegetable-based protein – will be replaced with 100 percent clean meat burgers. My hope is that the Andover dining services will ultimately partner with clean meat companies rather than use livestock-rearing farmers.

Bill Gates and Richard Branson have already contributed $17 million for clean meat startup Memphis Meats. Gates wrote in his personal blog, Gatesnotes, “There’s no way to produce enough meat for 9 billion people. Yet we can’t ask everyone to become vegetarians. That’s why we need more options for producing meat without depleting our resources.” Personally, any reservations that I have about lab-grown meat are outweighed by the enormous ecological toll and moral impact of the traditional meat industry. A lab grown revolution is upon us, and we must accept it.