When the first lab-grown beef burger was developed in 2013, it challenged the future of agricultural farming. Suddenly, we could start to picture a world where 50 billion chickens alone weren’t slaughtered every year to feed the global demand for meat.
Flash forward to January 2021, and even the manufacturer Mitsubishi is getting involved. In what looks like it might become one of the most competitive new industries, Mitsubishi has joined forces with Aleph Farms, an Israel-based food tech company that plans to bring lab-grown beef to Japan.
Lab-grown beef isn’t ready to be sold commercially in Japan just yet, but there’s one country that has authorised the selling of cultured meat: Singapore. In a landmark ruling in December 2020, the Singapore Food Agency became the first regulatory authority to approve the selling of lab-grown meat products, this time Eat Just’s cultured chicken bites.
Could lab-grown meat truly be the way forward? After years of frightening headlines warning us about environmental disaster, or thousands of protests pointing out the clear injustice of breeding and slaughtering animals, could culturing cells in a bioreactor be what finally puts a stop to intensive farming?
At the moment, we’re not quite sure.
What we do know is that the demand for lab-grown meat proves the world would rather invest billions into growing cells in a laboratory instead of simply giving up animal products. Unfortunately, what it doesn’t show is that society is on the cusp of going vegan overnight - although we can (and will) certainly dream.
After all, lab-grown meat still won’t be vegan-friendly; it’s developed by growing cells from live animals in a bioreactor with the help of a medium. Currently, the medium of choice is foetal bovine serum. Although lab-grown meat doesn’t require any animals to be slaughtered, we can’t imagine many vegans rushing to ingest the cells and blood of unborn calves, particularly since we have no idea what kind of suffering may be involved in the extraction process.
Moreover, producing lab-grown meat does nothing to challenge the assumption that animals are ours to exploit. Combine this with the fact that two of the world’s largest meat producers - Tyson and Cargill - have invested heavily in food technology start-up Memphis Meats (an investment trend we can expect to see growing), we can confirm that cultured meat won’t be part of the vegan domain.
Perhaps the question isn’t, ‘Is lab-grown meat vegan?’ but, ‘Should vegans support lab-grown meat?’. This is an ethical conundrum we’re sure will stimulate many different conversations in the coming years, especially as we learn more about the animal welfare implications of extracting and growing cells.
Of course, in a perfect world, everyone would open their eyes to animal exploitation and how global attitudes need to change. Yet, in a society where eating baby calves, drinking the milk of their mothers and wearing the skin of their fathers is not only accepted but completely normalised, this behavioural shift isn’t going to happen as quickly as we’d like.
What we can recognise is that lab-grown meat has the potential to significantly reduce the scale of animal suffering we see today. In high and middle-income countries where meat consumption is highest, perhaps being able to choose between factory-farmed and lab-grown meat will finally encourage people to move away from the former.
After all, as soon as the technology evolves, cultured meat is also likely to have a much smaller ecological footprint than farmed meat. As the energy needed to grow the meat decreases, it will also become more economical to produce and sell than it currently is. Knowing this, we’re interested to find out how the rise of cultured burgers, sausages and chicken bites might change the conversation about eating animals.
Let’s take, for example, the environmentalists who refuse to acknowledge the ecological footprint of animal agriculture. Now that there’s a way for them to avoid making actual behavioural changes (i.e. giving up meat), will they finally admit that intensive farming has contributed to mass land, water and air pollution? We expect not, but the hypocrisy will certainly be clear.
What about the people whose meat-based diet is motivated by its perceived health benefits? If lab-grown meat has the same nutritional value as factory-farmed meat - yet is free from both antibiotics and hormones - will it become the preferable choice? It may be too early to tell, but we hope it will drive people to think carefully about their motives for supporting industrial farming.
Is Lab-grown Meat a Vegan Friend or Foe? At Global Vegans, we can safely say we won’t be trying lab-grown meat of any kind, but we’re excited to imagine a world where intensive farming becomes obsolete. Until then, we’ll keep advocating a vegan lifestyle. Will you join us?