Lab Grown Meat. It’s a thing. Many people have never heard of it. And for the people who have, it still sounds like something that can’t or wouldn’t ever hit the mainstream market. However, it IS coming to a supermarket near you sooner than later. It’s touted as being greener, healthier, and more humane than real meat. But is that really the case? Can humans really function on meat grown in a lab? Is it possible to know what the long term effects are? This article from understanding.com describes the legitimacy of some of the beneficial clams from the lab grown meat camp. Enjoy! (Or maybe wait to enjoy until we get some real long term studies completed)
Work is underway now to develop acceptable lab grown meats for the consumer market. Also known as “cultivated meat,” these products are made by taking stem cells from animals and growing them petri-dish style around a scaffolding in nutrient-rich broth. The reasoning behind the cultivation of lab grown meat is comprised of several thought processes. These include:
- It is a “greener” alternative to traditional meat production.
- It uses less land, feed, water, and antibiotics.
- It reduces the need to farm and slaughter livestock.
- It reduces greenhouse (GHG) gas emissions.
- It is stated that it is “healthier.”
On the surface, these all appear to be good reasons to switch from real meat to a lab-grown version. However, there are several issues with these assumptions and statements:
- Exactly what is in the “nutrient-rich” broth that is used to produce lab grown meat? How do the food scientists growing these products know what nutrients and ratio of nutrients are best for our health? Where is their research showing their nutrient-rich broth is better than what we get in real meat? Are they using commodity beef nutritional data to make their decisions? Or have they studied the nutritional profile of regeneratively produced grass fed and pasture raised meats? Have they even considered the vast array of phytonutrients that exist in real food, or are they just looking at the basic nutritional panel of crude protein (CP), carbohydrates, fats, minerals, and vitamins?
- Where are the long-term studies comparing the health benefits of lab-grown meats to real meats? Since lab-grown meats are very new, those studies obviously do not exist.
- How might consuming lab-grown meats alter the epigenetics of humans?
- What are the alternative uses of land that is privately owned and marginal for crop production? Why should that land not be in livestock production?
- If we are producing grass-fed beef, then we do not need grains or other feedstuffs?
- Studies on regenerative production show that we are improving the water cycle, not diminishing it.
- We do not use sub-therapeutic antibiotics in grass-fed production and rarely need therapeutic antibiotics.
Researchers at UC-Davis have looked at the global warming potential of lab-grown meats and have found that the CO2 equivalents emitted for every kilogram of meat produced is between 4-25 times higher than that of commodity beef. Pay attention to what their research comparison is: lab-grown beef vs commodity beef. These researchers were not using regeneratively produced grass-fed beef in their study. So, if the CO2 equivalents were 4-25 times higher than commodity produced beef, how much higher are the CO2 equivalents in lab-grown beef compared to grass-fed beef?
The researchers tracked the energy used in each step of the cultivation process. The startling news is that the nutrient broth itself has a very large carbon footprint. The production of sugars, growth factors, vitamins, amino acids, and salts has a high energy cost. The crops that are grown to produce many of these components require a lot of energy and carbon emission. The labs themselves require significant energy to operate. Energy-intensive systems such as ultrafiltration and chromatography are a must.
To make certain the cultured meat is not contaminated with pathogenic bacteria or associated toxins, these labs must have a pharmaceutical-grade level of purification. Without this, the bacteria would grow faster than the anima cells.
In all fairness, Dutch scientists have published a study where they claim cultivated meat has a lower carbon footprint than real meat. However, they were funded by a Washington, DC-based cultivated meat advocacy group. Their research was also based on modeling and assumptions. One key assumption was that the pharmaceutical-grade components could be replaced with food-grade components. Many other scientists are skeptical of this because just trace levels of contaminants can significantly damage animal cell cultures.
Despite these issues and unknowns, more than $2 billion has already been invested in cultivated meat technology, suggesting investors are putting the cart ahead of the horse.
What about Real Meat?
So, what about the benefits of real meat? Meat that is produced regeneratively. Is there science that supports the claims that are being made? Let’s look at some of the results we are seeing.
- Farms being grazed regeneratively (adaptive grazing) have been found to be four times more powerful a carbon sink.
- Regenerative farms have a minimum of 25% more living, active microbes in the soil.
- Regeneratively grazed farms support 25%+ more birds and three times the number of grassland birds than conventionally grazed farms.
- More than 30%+ increase in beneficial insects.
- Higher net profitability.
- Regeneratively grazed farms infiltrate more than twice the rainfall per hour compared to conventional farms. In the words of Peter Byck, producer of the documentary Roots So Deep, on a 1,000-acre farm that amounts to 54 million gallons more water going into the soil.
- A UC-Davis study found that grasslands and rangelands in California provided significantly more resilient carbon sinks than forests.
- Regenerative grazing improves soil C by 20%+.
- Soil organic carbon stocks are 13%+ greater to a depth of 1m.
- The standing forage biomass is often 300%+ higher.
- Significantly greater diversity in plant species, soil microbial species, insects, birds, and other wildlife.
- Phytonutrient research shows that the forages the livestock are grazing on and the end product we eat (beef, pork, eggs) is significantly higher in phytonutrient profile.
- Grass-based agriculture supports substantially more ecosystem benefits.
- Adaptive grazing increases fine litter cover, water infiltration rates, forage biomass, and soil C stocks.
- Significantly reduced annual surface runoff.
- Enhanced water conservation and water quality.
- Animal performance is greatly improved – Better weight gain, increase in carrying capacity, wildlife numbers higher.
- Pasture and range conditions are significantly better.
- Improved soil health indicators – higher soil bulk density, higher water infiltration rates, increased fungal/bacterial ratios, greater total living microbial biomass
- Soil organic matter (SOM) averaged 66.5% higher than conventionally managed grazing.
- Reduced overall water requirements, better drought resilience, increased grassland productivity, and reduced erosion.
The claims being made relative to cultivated meat are dubious, at best. The research is not there to support any claims regarding it being “greener,” producing lower GHG emissions, having better water utilization (especially considering that regenerative production improves the water cycle), or that it is healthier. As a matter of fact, we have zero knowledge of the long-term health impacts of routinely eating cultivated meats.
In contrast, we do have a significant amount of peer-reviewed research and boots-on-the-ground knowledge of the benefits of regenerative agriculture and grazing. Those benefits are far reaching, ranging from soil health improvement to water cycle enhancements, to ecosystem diversity, to animal and human health.