Editor’s note: Alice Driver, a James Beard Award-winning writer and investigative journalist based in Little Rock, Arkansas, is the author of the forthcoming book “The Life and Death of the American Worker,” about labor rights in the meatpacking industry. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Lab-grown meat, cleared for sale recently in the United States and set to appear on the tables of two high-end US restaurants, has been hailed as the future, a more ethical and environmentally friendly option than factory farm meat. Unfortunately, the hype is mostly an illusion.
Among those singing its praises is humanitarian chef and restauranteur José Andrés. “This is an extraordinary moment for the future of our planet,” Andrés said in a statement to DCist/WAMU. “We have taken a significant step forward, a giant leap in fact, towards feeding our communities in a sustainable way.”
Good Meat and Upside Foods are the first two companies approved to produce and sell lab-cultivated chicken in the United States. Andrés, a board member of Good Meat, will serve the company’s chicken at China Chilcano, a restaurant of his in Washington, DC. Chef Dominique Crenn will offer chicken produced by Upside Foods chicken at Bar Crenn in San Francisco.
Selling lab-grown meat at Andres’ and Crenn’s restaurants makes sense. Lab-grown meat, also known as cultured or cultivated meat, costs about $17 a pound, making it unaffordable for most consumers. Good Meat parent company Eat Just says the company is taking a loss on sales to allow people to try it. Cultured meat is an option for those with an expendable income who want to continue eating animal flesh without killing animals. But the industry faces many ethical questions and three key challenges: cost, scalability and biology.
Lab-grown meat has more in common with meat produced at a slaughterhouse than you might think. Some critics of the meatpacking industry have gotten excited about the idea of lab-grown meat as an alternative to Big Chicken. But among those most likely to profit from these experiments are the major meatpacking companies.
Tyson Foods, the largest meatpacking company in the US, was an early investor in the plant-based meat company Beyond Meat and has put money in Upside Foods. Meatpacking giants JBS and Cargill have also invested in lab-grown meat.
Companies such as Tyson maintain record profits while using immigrant workers, who endure low wages and unsafe work conditions. With investors such as Tyson Foods, a company with a history of labor violations, one wonders what influence they will have on companies such as Upside Foods. (Under pressure from worker advocates several years ago, Tyson Foods promised better working conditions for employees, with an official saying, “We’ve always been committed to supporting our employees and have sound workplace practices in place, but also want to do better.”)
Companies making lab-cultured meat, just like meatpacking companies, would likely require heavy government subsidization because their products are not affordable.
Cultured meat seems visionary, but the biology and economics don’t add up. Live animal cells are put in stainless steel bioreactors to grow the meat. For cultivated meat production to reach 1% of the protein market, the industry would need 88 to 176 Olympic swimming pools of fermentation capacity, according to a 2021 report on cultivated meat by McKinsey & Company. The biopharma industry has less than 10 swimming pools of capacity, the report said then.
At farms and labs, the process begins with a living animal. In the case of cultured meat, the process starts when cells are extracted from a live animal’s muscle and skin tissue, and fetal bovine serum is collected from the unborn fetuses of slaughtered cows. Cell-cultured meat is grown in a lab; the resulting product is a single-cell slurry, a mix of 30% animal cells and 70% water. The slurry is used to make ground-meat products.
Like slaughterhouses, cultured-meat labs will have to confront problems with infection. Cultured animal cells are alive and can become infected with viruses. At the scale required to mass-produce lab-grown meat, the challenges would multiply.
In 2018, David Humbird, who has a doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, began work on a comprehensive study of cultivated meat’s potential. Humbird found that the cost of cultivation facilities would be too high for lab-grown meat to significantly displace the meatpacking industry’s market share, according to a 2021 analysis published in the journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering.
Both the meatpacking industry and lab-cultured meat exert a high environmental cost. While we know the meatpacking industry contributes to climate change, a 2023 study (not yet peer-reviewed) by the University of California, Davis, suggests lab-grown meat may be worse for the environment than the products it wants to replace. The study found that lab-grown meat’s carbon footprint is potentially greater than retail beef. Before celebrating cultured meat as a victory for anyone, surely more studies are needed to explore this point further.
In 2021, cultivated meat companies raised more than $1.3 billion, according to Good Food Institute, a nonprofit for the alternative protein industry, reflecting the belief that Big Tech can solve the ethical and environmental problems that the meat industry presents. While steak without suffering sounds inspiring to some, cultured meat is currently, at best, an expensive distraction from reality — as the Earth continues to warm, worsened by industrial animal agriculture, our days of unfettered meat eating may be numbered.