Lab-grown meat is garnering huge investment, but is it really the next big thing in food production?
At UPSIDE Foods, the focus is chicken. Your first thought might be a clucking, feather-covered hen — and you’d be right, kind of. But the UPSIDE lab doesn’t contain live chickens; instead, it’s focused on poultry DNA. Their mission is to turn a chicken’s stem cells into edible, lab-grown meat. The end-goal? To create a healthier, more sustainable version of the popular protein featuring a significantly smaller carbon footprint and a more ethical story compared to those produced by our current factory farming system.
Here’s how it works. Typically, lab-grown or “cultivated” meat originates from an animal. That animal’s cells are nourished in a lab environment with micronutrients until it grows into a slab of meat. After two to three weeks, the meat is harvested, inspected, prepared, packed, sold, and served to people like you and me.
“Our chicken looks, cooks, and tastes like chicken, because it is real chicken,” UPSIDE boasts on its website.
Sounds futuristic, right?
UPSIDE isn’t an outlier. In the U.S. alone, other companies, including Wildtype and BlueNalu — both of which are exploring cell-cultured seafood — have made similar advances in the lab-grown meat realm. And the market is growing. Eventually, we’ll likely be able to buy beef, chicken, pork, and fish sourced right from the lab. In fact, a report from Good Food Institute showed that dozens of new companies focused on producing cultivated meat and fermentation-enabled proteins launched in 2021. Government funders are following suit.
The same year, governments across the globe — including Israel, the U.S., and the EU — funded the lab-grown meat industry’s research and development efforts. Private investors like Bill Gates, Leonardo DiCaprio, and others invested $5 billion in the industry as well, tripling investment from 2020. And consulting company McKinsey & Company recently predicted the “cultivated,” or lab-grown meat market could reach $25 billion by 2030.
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When it comes to companies like UPSIDE, their interest in the technology is fueled by the potential positive environmental impact of lab-grown meat. The cells from a single chicken can produce the amount of poultry that would traditionally require the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of birds on traditional farms, says UPSIDE representatives. The environmental benefits don’t stop there.
According to UPSIDE, producing “cultivated” or lab-grown meat uses 77 percent less water and 62 percent less land than traditionally farmed meat. Most cultivated meat labs operate with 100 percent renewable energy, and a lack of animal processing plants reduces the risk of spreading animal-borne illnesses to humans. Not only that, a study from the University of Oxford showed that lab-grown meat would cut greenhouse gas emissions associated with the livestock industry by 96 percent.
Agriculturally produced methane — which mostly comes from livestock — currently accounts for 32 percent of methane emissions worldwide. And, according to the United National Environment Programme, cutting these emissions is critical to both reversing climate change and supporting human health. Factory farming practices in general are also brutal and unethical. Often, hundreds of animals are forced into small stock spaces and subjected to inhumane conditions and slaughter methods, with chickens among the most abused. The global demand for meat-based protein keeps these factories up and running, so replacing traditional methods for raising cows, chickens, and pigs would be an all-around win.
Of course, using biological engineering to grow these meats is still an early-stage idea. According to the New York Times, only 700 people worldwide have ever purchased lab-raised meat. To bring the innovation to local grocery stores and restaurants, we’ll need federal regulation. And at present, the only nation to approve sales of lab-grown meat is Singapore, which allowed cultivated meat company GOOD Meat — creator of the plant-based egg product JUST Egg — to sell its chicken in stores.
Read more: Why We Have to Curb Methane Emissions Now
In the U.S., the FDA has been working on a regulatory framework for cultivated meat since 2018, and multiple companies — including UPSIDE — will be ready to supply restaurants with their products as soon as the FDA gives the green light.
But then, you’ll have to actually convince people that lab-grown meat is healthy and ethically appropriate for consumption. As it stands, testers say it tastes fairly similar to farmed meat, with some textural differences on the stove, depending on the brand. However, opponents wonder why we’re attempting to reinvent the wheel in the first place when we can simply adopt a vegetarian diet to improve our relationship with the planet.
There’s also the issue of cost. Right now, cultivated meat mostly reaches the mouths of people who can afford luxury, high-end food, and it has a long way to go before it’s affordable for everyday consumers.
Lab-grown meat provides an enticing — if far off — alternative to the environmental and health problems our agriculture industry is grappling with. The question is: Would you eat it?
Read more: Why You Should Eat Less Meat
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