The Beef with Laboratory Grown ‘Clean’ Meat

The Beef with Laboratory Grown ‘Clean’ Meat

In August 2013, Mark Post, a professor of vascular biology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands unveiled to the world the first lab-grown burger. Mark Post had succeeded in untying the Gordian knot of using stem cell research to grow meat for consumption.

Before then, the thought of lab-grown meat wasn’t much more than a pipe dream. Something relegated to a dystopian future were meat is grown in test tubes and one can print hamburgers. After his revelation however, the lab-grown-meat movement and industry has waxed and waned and waxed again; the general process being that meat is grown from tissue collected from living animals without the need to kill them.

Billions of dollars have been funneled into various startups who claim to be the next creators with funding coming from notable people like Bill Gates and Richard Branson

Now most of these startups have various proprietary methods of creating this class of meat, and at different times, most of them have come up with announcements of different forms of milestones achieved in the journey to replace the extant organic (or inorganic depending on your perspective) meat. Although these successes are repeatedly applauded, there hasn’t been any real progress made in bringing the finished product to mass market. In fact, a good number of these declarations have been found to be made by startups seeking publicity and jockeying for leadership of the nascent industry.

Related Post: Organic, Free-Range, Fairtrade or Vegan: How Ethical Consumption Got So Selective

The Beef with Laboratory Grown Ethical 'Clean' Meat

In my opinion, the biggest challenge to the ‘clean meat movement’ is no longer a scientific one. Rather, it’s a people one and it translates quite simply as this; how to get people to accept the lab-grown meats in the stead of real ones. You see in some places, meat goes much further than food; it is a way of life, sometimes a status symbol. A call to help the environment may not be enough to change this perception as most people seem not to even understand how the meat they eat negatively affects the environment.

A noteworthy aspect of this ‘people factor’ is the issue of cost. Do people care enough about the environment to pay very high prices for clean or lab-grown meat? While the industry has succeeded in significantly lowering the cost, the price of clean meat is still much higher than normal meat, even when organically grown. According to experts, a pound of meat is about five dollars; six for organic while clean meat at present goes for anywhere between $300 a pound, upwards of $3000. See?

Another aspect is the fact that it is genetically manipulated. A valid question here is whether the eco-movement should support meat grown in laboratories. Since the eco-movement traditionally advocates for chemical-free organic foods, the use of synthetic chemicals and growth hormones is necessarily absent. In this regard, lab grown meat might appear to represent all things inorganic, especially to the average consumer.

Being a Nigerian and living in the “developing world”,  I can assure you that lab-grown meat in my neck of the woods is an extremely hard sell. It is difficult enough to try to sell the concept of lab-grown meat to people whose foods are traditionally organic. Add the fact that said meat is likely to be more expensive than real meat, and “clean meat” here is unlikely to catch on.

But then, isn’t it possible that even if the world rejects lab-grown meat, it might not matter because the target consumers may not even be the entire world? Suppose the final end consumer is one living in the United States of America?

It’s commonly known that Americans love their meat. From foie gras and hamburgers right through to beef jerkies and steaks, Americans generally consume high quantities of meat. In fact, according to the United States Department of  Agriculture, the average American consumed 222 pounds (100.8kg) of meat in 2018, making Americans the biggest meat eaters in the world. Given this statistic, it is a logical and acceptable marketing move for meat start-up companies to convince a percentage of Americans that lab grown meat is as good as the “real thing”.

Related Post: How Your Choice of Meat Can Save the Amazon

The million-dollar question at this stage then transforms to; Will the meat loving American people accept “clean meat” as the best alternative to fresh meat? A clue to the answer may lie in an unrelated but similar event.

Organic, Free-Range, Fairtrade or Vegan: How Ethical Consumption Got So Selective

Last month, Burger King announced that it was doing  the impossible; introducing the vegan big whopper to its menu. This announcement was welcomed with much fanfare and acclaim. The news was heralded as positive by all and sunder. While this is good news for vegans, to me it signifies something even deeper; a willingness for consumers to depart from traditional meals. If the American population can welcome such a change in a traditionally American meat meal, it is not a stretch that they may be willing to transition from meat to lab-grown meat especially if it tastes the same.

While I have not had the opportunity to taste any of these products, the makers swear that the products taste as good as the real thing; these concerns can be resolved through marketing and branding. A sign that the industry recognises this is their collective effort to market lab-grown meat as “Clean Meat”.

While writing this article, I visited a market in my neighborhood. It’s an open market where meat is sold from slabs of meat placed on tables and you buy a fly or two for each pound of meat you pay for. I thought about this and reflected on the industry as a whole. While clean meat is no threat to my neighborhood meat seller (the ocean will freeze over before Nigerians will buy lab-grown meat), I thought about the millions of people who depend on the meat industry to survive.

While clean meat may be good for the climate; will it be good for them?

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All images via Unsplash.

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