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Is Lab-Grown Food the Future? — Pros and Cons to Consider

12 min read

Beef burgers, veggie burgers, and now… lab-grown meat? You may have heard rumblings that cultured meat — made from animal stem cells — may become a mainstream consumer option soon. Is it true? And if so, is it a good thing? What is lab-grown meat? And should we be preparing for it to change the food system as we know it?

Since 2013, lab-grown food — and specifically cultured, “clean meat” — has been gathering increasing attention and funding. The first ever lab-grown burger was created in 2013 by scientist Mark Post, a professor of tissue engineering at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. It garnered press interest when it was eaten and reviewed by two food critics at a London news conference, and sparked talk of a potential solution to the issues surrounding animal agriculture.

At the end of 2020, Singapore became the first country to approve the production of cultured meat, giving Eat Just’s GOOD Meat branded lab-grown chicken the go-ahead. The cell-cultured chicken launched at a single restaurant (1880), and is now being served as a special tasting at Huber’s Butchery for SGD $18.50 per plate.

Then in June of 2023, the US joined Singapore with the approval of lab-grown meat, getting regulatory approval from both the USDA and FDA. Upside Foods and GOOD Meat’s cultured chicken products were both assessed and passed initial approvals based on premarket consultation. But like Singapore, the US debut of cell-cultivated meat will take place in a restaurant setting. Two Michelin-starred chefs — Dominique Crenn and José Andrés — aim to serve up the chicken at their respective restaurants.

Plant-based meat alternatives, on the other hand, are sold in restaurants and grocery stores around the world, sometimes even fooling meat eaters into thinking they’re chowing down on actual beef. And there’s a long tradition of veggie burgers made from peas, soy, beans, grains, mushrooms, and vital wheat gluten, which may not attempt to fool the palate so much as provide a hearty, tasty, and convenient alternative to “real” burgers.

While the conversation about switching away from conventional meat to alternatives has taken on new urgency recently, it actually dates back to the 1970s, sparked by a book called Diet for a Small Planet. The author, Frances Moore Lappé, wrote about the negative effects of industrialized animal agriculture on the planet, sparking discussion about necessary changes to the food system for a more ethical and sustainable world.

The Future of Food?

Fast forward to today, and scientists and entrepreneurs are looking at ways they can mitigate the environmental impacts of factory farming and animal agriculture. Many researchers and thought leaders are encouraging people to eat less meat to reduce their impact on the planet. The authoritative medical journal The Lancet published a 2019 report advocating a largely plant-based diet as the basis of a more equitable and sustainable world, as well as one with far less chronic disease. The authors argue that if everyone in the world switched to a diet that included half the amount of red meat and sugar that the Western diet typically does — and instead based their diets on fruits and vegetables — we’d leave future generations with a more stable climate and a healthier planet, while approximately 11 million fewer people would die annually from preventable causes.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine has highlighted a rising risk of global food shortages. The World Food Programme estimates that as many as 700 million people are experiencing or on the verge of facing acute hunger or food insecurity. Billions more face times of not having enough, or any, food to eat. Food prices have been rising at an alarming rate, and while for some of us this is an inconvenience, for others it can be a matter of basic survival.

Here’s the central problem: Much of our staple crops aren’t grown to feed people. Instead, they’re cycled through livestock, as animal feed. This is significant because it’s an incredibly wasteful conversion. It takes 8–12 pounds of corn to produce one pound of feedlot beef, for example.

Worldwide, over half the grain, 80% of the soy, and 50% of the corn grown is fed to livestock, not humans. This industrialized agriculture, which turns abundant staples into expensive and relatively scarce meat, eggs, and dairy, also fuels climate chaos, as the meat and dairy industries are among the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. With the realities of the meat industry entering public consciousness, the question of lab-grown meat has become timely. Is it the way of the future? Is it a safe, ethical, and cost-effective way to provide meat to the public? Or is it just another idealistic fad, entrepreneurial wild-goose chase, or dangerous biotechnology? Let’s take a closer look at what lab-grown food is and what it may have to offer.

What Is Lab-Grown Food?

Two samples of laboratory grown meat in separate petri dishes

There are two main types of lab-grown food currently in development: meat and dairy. These are produced either directly from animal cells or via microorganisms through fermentation. The cultivation of food in these ways is sometimes referred to as cellular agriculture.

To make cultivated meat, scientists extract muscle stem cells (called “myosatellite” cells) from an animal and grow them in a medium (a highly processed raw calorie source) to produce muscle tissue in a laboratory setting. Next, the tissue is fed, multiplied, shaped, and structured using bioreactors to become what we might recognize as a burger or meat product.

While it’s a novel idea to many of us, it’s been more science fact than science fiction for a while now. NASA has been studying and using this “in vitro” meat since 2001 to feed astronauts on long space missions. And the idea for lab-grown meat originated long before then, with a man named Willem van Eelen, who filed original patents for the idea in the 1940s.

Fermentation-based cellular agriculture, on the other hand, is a relatively new method of creating animal-free protein and dairy products. Companies are using bioengineered yeast-like microflora, which ferments plant sugar to produce casein and whey, the milk proteins found naturally in dairy. These are then used to produce milk and milk products.

Potential Benefits and Problems of Lab-Grown Meat

Homemade burger with lettuce and cheese on wooden chopping board. Preparing food outdoors. Chef making hamburger.

So what are the potential pros and cons of lab-grown meat? There are a lot of perspectives to cover, so let’s divide them up by area.

How Much Will Lab-Grown Meat Cost?

Raw meat sample in laboratory Petri dish. Cultured lab grown meat or meat examination concept.

Assuming it’s commercially viable, lab-grown meat will likely be more expensive than conventional meat — at least initially. The first lab-grown hamburger, which was a five-ounce beef patty cultivated in a petri dish, took two years to make and cost about $325,000 at the time.

This isn’t unusual, as new technologies almost always have a costly research and development phase. Once people start purchasing, and production volume increases, costs almost always go down. (This was true with plant-based burgers like the Impossible Burger as well. Originally, they cost around $20 per burger to make, and they were difficult to find. Now, they’re more widespread and sell for around $15 per pound, and less at higher volume.)

The estimated costs of lab-grown meat are starting out high. But as we’ve seen thus far, Singapore’s cultured chicken sold for $23 on the menu of restaurant 1880, which is on par with many of their other entrées. Lab-grown meat, once it’s produced on an industrial scale, could eventually achieve price parity with (or cost less than) steaks and burgers made from the flesh of animals. But until then, it’s likely to continue being produced at a loss.

One of the largest cost obstacles is the cell culture medium used to make cultured meat. Basically, the question is: What’s the raw material that’s cultured to produce the final product? What’s needed, at the core, is a mixture of amino acids and carbohydrates. So far, nothing ecologically or economically sustainable has been implemented. But researchers believe that in time, raw materials from large-scale agricultural production could serve as inputs for cultivated meat. This would mean that it might be possible to turn a “waste” product into food.

Preventing Biotech Monopolies

Eventually, at least in theory, lab-grown meat and other proteins could become less expensive than those produced from traditional farming. But will that ever come to pass? What about food ownership and centralized control? There are already patents in place for lab-grown or in vitro meat — US6835390B1 and US7270829B2. So will “clean meat” ultimately turn into a power grab from a few companies that seek to control the world’s food supply (much like Monsanto-Bayer’s impact on the seed industry)?

There’s little doubt that if in vitro meat and cultivated proteins catch on and achieve widespread adaptation, somebody will seek to have as much control, and to make as much money, as possible in the process. And if history is any indication, the power that comes with any monopoly is not likely to be democratically distributed. Because of this, antitrust laws could be helpful in ensuring that the biotechnology would be managed in ways that at least have the potential to alleviate world hunger rather than increasing it.

Currently, there are over 150 companies developing cell-cultivated meat and about 28 creating dairy using precision fermentation. However, as of this writing, only two companies have had US and Singapore approval.

Is Lab-Grown Food Better for the Environment?

According to a massive study published in the journal Science in 2018, meat and dairy provide 18% of the calories that humans consume. But their production uses 83% of global farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Industrial agriculture is an enormous contributor to water usage and pollution. And it’s also one of the biggest threats to global biodiversity. Land clearance for agriculture destroys wild animal habitats, which ultimately can lead to species extinction.

Because it has the potential for growth with a high level of efficiency — and without the production of methane, ammonia, manure, and other waste products — lab-grown food could, at least in theory, be more sustainable than existing animal agriculture.

To date, however, the small number of studies done to evaluate the environmental impacts of cultured meat are all based on speculative life cycle assessments (LCAs). These studies look at the environmental resources used as well as the potential emissions from cell cultivation to the completion of production — based on current methods.

Exactly how sustainable lab-grown food is could depend, in large measure, on breakthroughs in the growth medium that’s used, as well as the type of energy used to produce it. Facilities could potentially run on clean energy — like fermentation-based Solein from Solar Foods — which could reduce production emissions by 40–80%.

But since cell-cultivated meat is still in its infancy in terms of production, projections about its sustainability are all theory at this point. Once more large-scale facilities are up and running, and demand matches or exceeds the facilities’ actual output, better conclusions can be drawn about their actual environmental impact.

It conceivably has the potential to be a big improvement over conventional meat products, from an environmental standpoint.

In theory.

Will it Reduce or Eliminate Animal Cruelty?

Shot of a herd of cows on a farm

As it stands today, more than 70 billion land animals are killed globally, every year, to supply the food system. Factory farming is notorious for its cruel treatment of animals, which often involves brutal living conditions and ultimately ends in slaughter.

Cultivated meat, on the other hand, uses stem cells or skin cells extracted from the animal — via a minor procedure — to grow the meat product. Just one stem cell sample may produce enough muscle tissue to make 80,000 quarter-pound hamburgers.

Is lab-grown meat vegan, then? Maybe not technically, since lab-grown meat does still require cells taken from animals at one point in the production process. But organizations like PETA and Mercy for Animals have jumped in with enthusiastic endorsement.

However, there is another ethical concern to bear in mind. Thus far, most cell-based meat has used fetal bovine serum (calf fetus blood) in its growing medium, which raises some serious ethical concerns.

When a pregnant cow is killed, the fetus is removed from its mother and bled to death. The blood is then refined and turned into fetal bovine serum. Most of the cultured meat produced to date has been grown on this medium — making it far from vegan-friendly. However, as the technology has progressed, some companies have begun to replace this medium with a plant-based one.

And in January of 2023, GOOD Meat (the cultured meat division of Eat Just), became the first producer to receive regulatory approval for the use of fetal bovine serum-free cell growth media in cultivated meat products.

Is Lab-Grown Meat Healthier?

The health problems associated with red and processed meat are well-documented, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain forms of cancer. So will lab-grown foods be any better?


The cells used to grow cultivated meat don’t grow fat cells because the stem cells used are made from muscle tissue. Fat has to be added to the cultivated meat later, which means producers can control their fat profiles. It’s widely believed that cultured meat could eventually be engineered to have specific nutrient profiles and therefore intended health outcomes for consumers. This could mean tinkering with the composition of essential amino acids, fat, vitamins, minerals, and bioactive compounds that wind up in the end product. In theory, this could lead to a product with, for example, a more optimized amino acid profile, higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, and lower levels of saturated fat, than conventional meat.

This is all still theoretical, of course. Any time humans tinker with nature, we risk some big surprises. The best of intentions could lead to unanticipated consequences. So it behooves us to do thorough testing led by unbiased researchers before releasing any newly fabricated “meat” product to large numbers of people. But it seems possible that, in comparison to conventional meat, lab meat could eventually have a net health benefit.

Other Health Concerns

Bacterial culture plate with chicken meat at the background

There are other factors to consider, too. Traditional animal products are a major cause of foodborne illnesses, outbreaks, and food recalls. Bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli live in the guts of animals and can be transmitted to the food system through fecal contamination. This poses huge food safety risks for consumers. Cultivated meat may be a safer alternative in this regard, as it’s produced in a controlled environment.

And let’s not forget about the antibiotics used in factory farming. Right now, more than two-thirds of all the antibiotics used in the world are given to livestock, not humans. This is turning our factory farms into breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten to take hundreds of millions of human lives by the end of this century. Will lab-grown meat put an end to the overuse of antibiotics in food production and help preserve the viability of these precious medicines for future generations of people?

Again the answer is maybe. So far, clean meat relies heavily on antibiotics to prevent bacterial contamination, as cultured muscle cells have no immune system to fight off germs. But proponents tell us that in the future, once production is scaled up to meet commercial needs, it will be automated and done in closed, sterile systems — rendering antibiotics unnecessary. Whether or not they’re right remains to be seen.

Impact on Farming and the Economy

A common argument against the transition to cultured meat and dairy is that it would be economically detrimental to farmers and brands currently producing conventional animal products. Some even go so far as to say that lab meat could eradicate the meat and dairy industries — destroying hundreds of millions of jobs.

But the truth is that right now, much of the global economy is based on industries and practices that are unsustainable. The transition to cleaner, safer, healthier, and more sustainable ways of living will require massive changes in employment and lifestyle for billions of people. If a new innovation emerges that can solve problems and improve the living conditions on our planet, then shouldn’t it be one measure of a healthy society that we find a way to incorporate it, hopefully in a way that leaves nobody out in the cold?

There are still huge questions that proponents of cultured meat are going to need to be able to answer before we can consider it any sort of a solution to the world’s problems.  But if it does emerge as being of real value, or a helpful piece of the puzzle, then it also stands to reason that we may see the creation of new jobs in the process. And maybe, just maybe, the people employed in the production of new food systems will be treated better than most farm laborers and slaughterhouse workers are being treated today.

Would You Eat Food Grown in a Lab?

Chris Bryant, a researcher at the University of Bath studying the acceptance of cultured meat, says, “Acceptance of clean meat seems to vary an awful lot between surveys. Some have shown as many as two-thirds of consumers saying they would eat clean meat, while others have shown as few as 16%.” At the end of the day, cultural acceptance may hinge in large part on what the product actually is, how it’s produced, how rigorously it’s tested, and how independently it’s being studied. And, of course, how it tastes and what it costs. All of those questions remain unanswered for now.

But let’s not forget that most conventional meat products are far from natural, too. Modern factory-farmed animals are contaminated with hormones and antibiotics, fed a profoundly unnatural diet, and are victims of immense cruelty. Many also never see a blade of grass, or the light of day, in their entire miserable lives. So for those people who continue to eat meat, it seems possible that lab-grown products might provide a healthier, more sustainable, and potentially cruelty-free alternative.

The Jury Is Still Out

Still, some critics are unimpressed. They point out that proponents of lab-grown meat sound an awful lot like early advocates for GMOs. Let’s not forget that before GMOs were widely adopted, Monsanto and other biotech companies had a number of claims about how their technology would benefit the world. Yet here we are, decades later, and those promises have hardly been met. Genetic engineering of our food has not (at least so far) led to increases in yield, nutritional value, flavor, or drought tolerance. And it’s led to a net increase in pesticide use. (For more on the pros and cons of genetic engineering of our food, see our article, here.)

So will cellular agriculture ultimately be another chapter in the same story? Will it be another step towards a dark dystopian future? Or will it be a breakthrough solution that helps humanity break free from cruel and unsustainable practices and advance into a brighter possibility for all generations to come?

Until the technology is developed and studied further, and wide-scale production begins, we can only look at projections and theories. After all, even as we consider the words of various cellular agriculture companies, they obviously have a stake (if not a steak!) in the outcome.

But one thing’s for sure: A lot of smart people are working hard to develop this technology. They stand to make a lot of money if they succeed. And one way or the other, the future of food will be impacted by what happens next.

Tell us in the comments:

  • What is your opinion on lab-grown meat?
  • Would you ever eat it?
  • Do you think lab-grown foods have the potential to be part of the solution?

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