Unlike previous types of faux meat, lab-grown meats are said to be bio-identical to “real” meat (Illustration by Dan P. Parsons)
In November 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a game-changing verdict: Lab-grown meat was safe to eat, and a California-based company called Upside Foods had the green light to begin using cells from live chickens to, well, grow more chicken meat in a lab.
As moments in food history go, this one’s a biggie: Not only did it make the U.S. the second country in the world after Singapore to legalize something that seems straight out of a science fiction novel, but it seems to herald the dawn of a whole new way for our species to eat. Gold rush in aisle five, anyone?
If you’re having visions of fully formed chicken breasts springing out of petri dishes, you’re close. “Lab-grown meat”—or cultivated meat, or cellular agriculture, as it’s variously called—would be more accurately described as bio-manufactured meat, explains Dana McCauley, chief experience officer at the Canadian Food Innovation Network (CFIN).
“In very lay language, the technique for making these kinds of proteins is to get stem cells and serum from a live animal—it doesn’t hurt them in any way—and you take those cells, and you multiply them in a controlled environment,” she says.
The cells grow by feeding on a starch that’s left after all the protein has been extracted from a chickpea, for example. Then, a process called “precision fermentation” is used to give them the qualities we look for in meat-like products, like the chewiness of a steak or the juiciness of a burger. We’ve seen faux meat before (remember the Impossible Burger?), but unlike previous iterations, McCauley says these lab-grown meats are bio-identical to “real” meat. Nutritionally and molecularly, it's meat.
“We’re in [a] golden age of food science,” says McCauley. “This is a click-over point for us as food producers; it’s historic. As the population of the world grows, we’re going to need more protein, especially as people become more affluent, they want to eat more meat… and if we’re going to satisfy all these people, we’re going to have to have more ways to make meat for them, and we’re not getting any more land.”
One of those solutions could be found in Edmonton, Alberta, home to Future Fields, a biotechnology company that originally had a vision to produce Canada’s first “cultivated chicken nugget,” but pivoted to making “growth factors,” which are essentially the fuel that makes those animal cells grow in the lab. Future Fields makes its growth factor using fruit flies.
“The cost of growth factors and growth media contribute up to 85 per cent of the overall cost of producing a kilogram of product,” explains the company’s VP of finance, Matthew Alexander. “Our goal through our biomanufacturing platform is to reduce that to a point where cellular agriculture companies can be closer to achieving price parity with conventional products.”
But the potential benefits of this technology go well beyond price. It has the potential to help combat climate change, given that the production of meat makes up a significant portion of planet-warming greenhouse gases. There’s also a real chance that this could help tackle global food insecurity, which our growing population and climate change are only exacerbating.
Still, not everyone is greeting the potential arrival of lab-grown meat with enthusiasm.
Alicia Kennedy, a writer, cook and author of the forthcoming No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating, sees a parallel between lab-grown meat and electric cars, which are touted as a solution to climate change, but carry their own increased energy demands, including natural resources used to power the batteries. Rather than changing the behaviour—eating less meat, taking public transportation—both could be swaps that ultimately do very little to combat climate change.
“When we’re talking about lab-meat, we have to ask the same question: Is this actually going to be a net good?” Kennedy asks. “Or is this something that can replace a small amount of meat, or just the meat served at fast food restaurants, the meat that is the lowest quality and the most disruptive environmentally and destructive in regard to animal welfare and human labour?”
Instead, she says the solution to all the concerns we have around food—sustainability, climate change, animal and human welfare—would be better addressed by a system-wide overhaul that motivates people to change the behaviours that have gotten us here in the first place.
CFIN’s McCauley disagrees with Kennedy, but she does acknowledge that there will likely need to be significant education around lab-grown food with the public—and it shouldn’t be tackled by “profit-driven” marketers. Health Canada and other stakeholders should be involved as well. And the clock is ticking in Canada as she predicts we’re at least five years out from seeing lab-grown products approved to be sold in stores.
What about specific concerns about making food in a lab, rather than growing it the way we’ve done for millennia? “There’s no real mystery behind biotechnology and biomanufacturing,” she says, pointing out that the same bio-reactors that are used to make kimchi and beer go into the process of precision fermentation too.
Or, in another analogy from McCauley: In the same way that Henry Ford was able to make a “motorized horse” thanks to other existing discoveries into vulcanized rubber and the combustion engine, a lab-grown chicken breast will be the culmination and combination of dozens of other existing technological innovations—DNA, genomics—and older techniques like fermentation being used in new ways.
“It’s not one mad scientist in a lab,” she says. “It’s a systemic, scientific milestone that’s happening which is going to allow us to do things we couldn’t do before.”
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