Are There Problems with Lab-Grown Meat?

It's cool technology, but sometimes a simpler solution is all that's needed.

lab grown meat

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The recent announcement that lab-grown meat has been approved for sale in Singapore is being described as a victory for scientific innovation, animal welfare, human health, and environmentalism. It is a truly impressive feat, the production of edible meat from cells that doesn't harm a single animal in the making. But could there be problems with it? Might all the enthusiasm be a bit premature?

"The presence of these foods on the market — with their carefully engineered extraction and concentration of ingredients understood as having significant impact on health — reinforces the idea that access to healthful eating requires going through the technological and scientific expertise found in the industrial food laboratory."

Author Jenny Kleeman has a similar take, writing that developing cellular agriculture deepens our reliance on "remote corporations with highly specialised technology to meet our basic needs" – not necessarily something that we should be encouraging (particularly when COVID-19's grocery store shortages highlighted just how dependent we already are on distant supply chains). 

"Instead of waiting for it to be ready, the company found a country with more amenable standards to give it the green light to put its product on sale. That’s problematic for the entire cultured meat industry: consumers care more about the provenance of food now than ever before, and any producer of a new food needs to be seen to take regulatory standards seriously."
healthy lunch
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For me, as someone who has written about industrial agriculture for years now and is a staunch advocate of smaller-scale local and seasonal food systems, cellular agriculture feels like the antithesis of everything I advocate for. While I acknowledge the technology is impressive and would certainly try eating lab-grown meat, I do think people are often in too much of a hurry to embrace fancy technological fixes to problems that could be solved in much simpler (and dare I say boring?) ways. 

Yes, we eat far too much meat in developed countries, and we produce it in unethical, even dangerous ways (think antibiotic resistance), but we can fix that more rapidly and effectively by eating less meat, buying better quality meat when we do (ideally from small-scale farmers and producers in our own areas), and prioritizing other forms of nourishment, like vegetables, beans, lentils, and whole grains. 

I've written before about Band-Aid solutions being highly appealing because they don't challenge people to change their behaviors. Take biodegradable plastics, for instance, which allow people to justify going on with a disposable, eat-on-the-go-and-never-plan-ahead mentality. Maintaining (and greenwashing) the status quo is easier than planning and making meals in advance, carrying them from home in reusable containers, and washing the dishes. (Side note: Biodegradable plastics are not better than conventional plastics and pose many of the same risks to wildlife.)

The same goes for the meat issue. The push for cellular agriculture wouldn't be so strong if it weren't for the disastrous meat production system that has been established over the past half-century and for people gorging themselves on quantities of meat that would've been unheard of in our grandparents' time. As with so many environmental issues that have sprung from chronic over-consumption, a return to old-fashioned and more traditional ways of living would come as a relief to the planet, our bodies, and our wallets.

Cell-based meat is a fascinating invention, without a doubt, and it will be interesting to see the role it plays in society going forward. But let's not be too quick to assume it can fix everything, or that we can evade taking responsibility for our own actions that have created the problems cell-based meat is trying to repair.

Katherine Martinko, December 2020