Could “test tube burgers” spell the end of animal exploitation? A solution to our environmental crisis? Find out why this is such a hot-button issue within the vegan community as we look at the pros and cons of lab grown meat.
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Veganism is all about reducing the harm we cause to sentient beings to the best of our ability. This is why we don’t eat animal products—it’s impossible to take the body part or secretion of a living being without exploitation and pain.
Or is it? If meat and other animal products could be made without harming animals, would there finally be such a thing as vegan meat? [tweet this]
When it comes to lab grown meat, there are vegans on both sides of the debate. With the potential for massive reductions in the environmental impact of animal agriculture and an end to the suffering and death of trillions of animals every year, why wouldn’t every vegan be championing the cause for test tube meat?
As with most topics I set out to cover, cultured meat production is far more complicated than it may first appear. We’re going to cover some of the pros and cons of cellular agriculture and why it’s a hot button within the vegan community.
As always, I’ll be barely scratching the surface, so you can dig into the citations and resources at the base of this post for more information.
The concept of growing and maintaining muscle outside of the body is not new. Starting in 1912, biologist Alexis Carrel kept cells from an embryonic chicken heart beating in a nutrient bath in his laboratory for more than 20 years. In 1931, Winston Churchill wrote in a predictive essay optimistically entitled Fifty Years Hence that, “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
Over the decades from NASA-backed fish fillets made of goldfish cells to the 2013 taste test of the first lab-grown burger, the cultured meat, well, culture, continues to grow. [See  for a brief but thorough timeline in the “In-Vitro Meat” section of the essay].
The advantages of this method of meat creation are obvious. Despite the efforts, hopes and dreams of vegans and activists alike, the global demand for meat is on the rise with India and China leading the charge.
With animal agriculture contributing as much as 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions, using a third of the earth’s fresh water, up to 45 percent of the Earth’s land, causing 91 percent of Amazon rainforest destruction and serving as a leading cause of species extinction, ocean dead zones, and habitat destruction, the environmental implications alone could be staggering. [tweet this]
A 2011 study concluded that, “cultured meat involves approximately 7–45% lower energy use … 78–96% lower GHG emissions, 99% lower land use, and 82–96% lower water use depending on the product compared.” While these numbers sound promising, the study was largely criticized for basing its numbers on a not-yet-proven method of cultured meat growth.
While still theoretical, a 2014 study accounting for other potential production methods found that energy use for cultured meat actually exceeded current levels for beef production, but had significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions and land usage and was only higher than poultry in water usage.
The reality is that the actual environmental impact of cultured meat remains unknown because it’s still in such an experimental phase. The ground meat grown for 2013’s seminal burger was a relatively simple creation of pure protein. It lacked any of the fat and blood that give meat its flavor or the firmness of once-active muscle tissue. In order to create meat products of more substance, the muscle, which is what meat is after all, has to be exercised and provided with artificial blood flow, oxygen, digestion and nutrition.  Some scientists speculate that this increased energy demand may negate any reduction in land usage and agricultural input. 
Basically, when it comes to the environmental benefits, it’s still too early to know.
Here is where cultured meat has the potential to shine.
There are several significant hurdles to overcome before lab-grown meat can be called anything near “cruelty and animal-free.” The major issues on the ethics end are establishing self-renewing stem cells and finding plant-based materials for the growth medium and scaffolding.
To understand what that means, I’ll give a very simplified version of in-vitro meat production. Initially, cells are taken via biopsy from a living animal and deposited into a growth medium where they proliferate and grow. Eventually, in order to produce meat products with more structure than the ground patty, they will need a form of scaffolding to hold their shape.
The first ethical issues arise when considering the long-term viability of the initial harvested cells. Professor Mark Post, the man behind the famous taste-tested burger, has said that, “the most efficient way of taking the process forward would still involve slaughter,” with a “limited herd of donor animals” kept for stock. Others in the movement envision the establishment of a self-renewing stem cell line, meaning only an initial biopsy would be required at which point the cell line would replicate indefinitely.
Yet another concern is that—given humanity’s love of the new, different and exotic—we may start breeding specialty animals for cell harvesting, which would still require the confinement and reproductive control of sentient beings.
As a side-note, Post’s famous burger was made with egg powder to enhance the taste, introducing another level of animal suffering. This is by no means, however, a necessary practice.
The second major ethical issue and one that isn’t widely addressed in most of the news reports on cultured meat, is the growth medium into which the cells are deposited. At the moment, the most widely used medium is bovine fetal serum. Fetal serum from an array of animals is commonly employed in a wide range of experiments, including those for tampons, which I covered in my “Are Tampons Vegan?” video.
The harvesting of bovine fetal serum is far from transparent. One study reached out to 388 harvesting entities with only 4% responding with any kind of methodology data. Five sources explicitly declared their harvesting methods to be confidential.
Of those that did respond, the typical procedure for fetal serum harvesting was “by cardiac puncture” meaning a needle directly into the beating heart of the fetal cow. They specify that, “Fetuses should be at least 3 months old; otherwise the heart is too small for puncture.” The general process is as follows:
“At the time of slaughter, the cow is found to be pregnant during evisceration (removal of the internal organs in the thorax and abdomen during processing of the slaughtered cow) … The calf is removed quickly from the uterus [and] a cardiac puncture is performed by inserting a needle between the ribs directly into the heart of the unanaesthesised fetus and blood is extracted.” This bleeding process can take up to 35 minutes to complete while the calf remains alive. Afterwards, “the fetus is processed for animal feed and extraction of specific substances like fats and proteins, among other things.”
The study continued with a detailed debate as to whether the fetal cows can feel this procedure and their possible slow death from anoxia, meaning lack of oxygen, from placental separation, and estimated that between 1 and 2 million fetuses are harvested annually for serum.
All in all, fetal serum from any animal is not, by any stretch of the imagination, cruelty-free. The good news is that the champions of the cultured meat movement seem to be invested in finding plant-based medium alternatives with both algae and mushrooms providing promising options. Fetal serum’s drawbacks don’t stop at the ethical line. There are scientific concerns as batches vary considerably in their composition. It also poses the threat of pathogen introduction, is not environmentally friendly and is cost-prohibitive. Dr. Neil Stephens of Cardiff University states that: “everyone in the field acknowledges this as a problem … It currently undermines a lot of the arguments that people put forward in support of in vitro meat.”
This leads into two of the additional pros of cultured meat, both revolving around human health. Though I personally believe that health is the last worry when it comes to producing a possible alternative to mass animal slaughter, it’s worth noting that the composition of cultured meat can be altered to provide superior nutritional benefits. The level of fat and type of fat can be selectively controlled. The threat of food contamination and spread of pathogens would also be greatly reduced, as cultured meat would not involve all the biohazards of traditional slaughter.
So if scientists are able to create a self-replicating cell line, thus eliminating the enslavement and potential slaughter of animals, and find a suitable plant-based growth-medium and scaffolding, thus eliminating the cruelty of fetal serum and other animal byproducts, what objections remain against going after this concept in full force? Two of the largest are cost and what’s best described as “the ick factor.”
Surveys involving every range of dietary practice seem to indicate that the majority of people are put off by the concept of lab-grown meat. Interestingly enough, those people with the highest rates of meat consumption appear to be the most sensitive to disgust.
Of course cultured meat proponents emphasize that “lab-grown” is a bit of a misnomer. While in the testing stages, the meat is grown in laboratories. However, were it to go to commercial production, it would be made in factories just like all of our packaged food items, and—some could argue—would be more natural than other chemical concoctions the public readily consumes. [see for an illustration of potential production methods].
Also, given what all we inject into our food animals from hormones to antibiotics, to our outright manipulation of their genes, one could ask just how natural “standard” animal products really are.
While cultured meat doesn’t require the use of GMO’s, it’s possible that genetically modifying cells may allow them to reproduce faster and thus prove more economical.
As with any new technology, the initial cost investments will be steep, but Post and others in the movement see cultured meat eventually attaining a competitive price to traditional products, though most likely not for at least another decade.
The vegan community is most dramatically torn on either side of this issue. (See  for examples.) Some feel that any product derived from an animal remains a form of exploitation. Others believe that with the insurmountable fight against the ongoing animal holocaust and more non-vegans being born every day, we need to search for practical and viable solutions to replace humanity’s rising demand for meat.
The vegans on the pro-cultured meat side I’ve come across through my research say they place the animals’ interests above all else. They believe it’s unrealistic to expect humanity on a global scale to cease or even reduce their consumption of animals. Thus, providing an alternative that not only looks and tastes like but actually is meat could be, with the proper harvesting method and growth medium, the most immediate path to animal liberation currently available.
With the concurrent rise of research into milk and egg-producing yeast and leather and other animal byproducts, could it be that the laboratory and not the picket line will be the ultimate genesis of a vegan world? [tweet this]
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this hot debate in the comments below.
— Emily Moran Barwick