Lab grown cultured meat concept for artificial in vitro cell culture meat production with frozen packed raw beef meat with made up red label

Ecology: Is Lab-Grown Meat the Food for a Sustainable Future?

Lab-grown meat (or ‘cultured meat’) is a painless, torture-free process that uses cellular agriculture to satisfy the increasing demand for food by the swelling human population. Lab-grown meat has less strain on the environment and has the potential to produce food security for millions around the world. Vegetarian and plant-based diets don’t work for everyone, but cultured meat allows meat-lovers to continue their preferred diets. For years, companies have invested time and money into technology that can produce ‘no-kill meat’. Unfortunately, this seemingly perfect solution is not without its problems.

The cost of our current diet: we are divorced from the product and the consequences

Undeniably, humans are meant to eat meat, but not at the volume and frequency we do every day. As consumers, we have become completely divorced from the meat production process. Almost mechanically, we pile vacuum-sealed bags of flesh into our baskets. The commodified body parts are no longer recognised as animals; rather, they are breakfast, lunch and dinner, canvasses for craving and human desire.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), meat production is a major stressor for ecosystems and on the planet as a whole.

Shop shelves lined with rows of red meat mince packaged in plastic trays
Image Source:

Greenhouse gas

Livestock’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and the global warming effect sits at around 18%. To limit global warming, scientists argue that changes to our diet are crucial.

Land use and deforestation

Meat production accounts for around 30% of land use. In the Amazon, cattle ranching is the main cause of deforestation. As a result of deforestation, habitats are destroyed, the soil is damaged and biodiversity is diminished. The destruction of forests demolishes food sources for dwelling species. Sadly, around 100,000 species become extinct in tropical forests every year, and the loss of one species in an ecosystem affects others who rely on it.

A stretch of deforested land with burnt tree branches and tree stumps
Image Source:

Water use and pollution

Meat production is also a major driver of water use and pollution. Livestock land use and management are the primary mechanisms through which livestock contribute to the water depletion process.

Food insecurity

As water becomes scarcer, it is likely that food production will be compromised. This is because water will have to be directed from agricultural uses to environmental, industrial and domestic purposes.

Worryingly, the FAO anticipates that these ecosystem stressors will continue to intensify, with meat consumption estimated to double by 2050. But meat production is already close to its peak, so what is the solution?

Global hunger and environmental destruction as catalysts for lab-grown meat

With a rapidly expanding population, the demand for meat products is expected to rise as much as 88% in the next 30 years. According to the FAO, food insecurity already impacts over 2 billion people. By 2050, 10 billion mouths will need feeding; this presents a huge challenge for the food industry. Whilst responding to global hunger, we must cultivate foods that simultaneously reduce carbon emissions and reverse environmental destruction.

“Our future food systems need to provide affordable and healthy diets for all and decent livelihoods for food system workers while preserving natural resources and biodiversity and tackling challenges such as climate change” – FAO

Consultants and experts argue that by 2040, around 60% of meat will either be grown in labs or will be plant-based products that replicate the taste and texture of meat. Currently, there are already a range of companies (Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Just Foods) that use plant-based ingredients to create ‘fake meat’ burgers and vegan eggs.

A picture graphic showing how to feed 10 billion people without using more land and while lowering emissions
To feed 10 billion people, we need 56% more food /
Image Source:

Producing lab-grown meat

The process of growing cultured meat in a lab involves isolating a small number of muscle stem cells from a live adult animal. These cells are then cultivated in nutrient-rich conditions known as bioreactors. Under the influence of certain hormones, stem cells are able to multiply and differentiate into different muscle cells. The resulting biomass is then mechanically assembled into muscle tissue to form the edible final product.

A flow chart showing how lab-grown meat is formed from cow to stem cells to muscle tissue to hamburger
Image Source:

Mosa Meat, a Dutch cultured meat company, claims that the taste of their lab-grown beef is close to that of conventional meat. They also argue that the creation of meat in this way can drastically lower the meat industry’s environmental impact, as well as reducing the risk of infectious diseases that spread from animals to humans.

The positives of lab-grown meat

Lab-grown or ‘cultured’ meat is identical to conventional meat, just grown differently. Some people are hesitant toward a sterile, laboratory meat-producing process. However, I can’t imagine these same people would be jumping to take a front-row seat at a slaughterhouse either. The processes may be different, but the final product is the same.

Less bacterial contamination

Many foodborne bacterial diseases like E. coli inhabit animals’ intestines and are spread through their faeces. The conventional meat production process is highly susceptible to contamination by these bacteria. However, since lab-grown meat doesn’t produce faeces, bacterial infections are much less likely to be transmitted from animal to human.

An end to animal suffering

Lab-grown meat combats the age of animal cruelty. Currently, around 50 billion animals are factory farmed. Crammed in cages and treated like replaceable cogs in a colossal machine, our food sources live short, dismal lives. Cultured meat has the potential to prevent many animals from a slow, tortured existence.

Use fewer planet resources

If we grow our meat in labs, we wouldn’t have to eradicate rainforests to plant crops to feed animals. Deforestation could be reversed and biodiversity supported. According to sustainability expert Dr. Carolyn Mattick, lab-grown meat could drastically lower the amount of water pollution and land use. Cultured meat uses 99 per cent less land and five times less water than conventional meat production. Unfortunately, however, the energy required for culturing processes is still relatively high.

A graph depicting three orange and blue circles comparing the environmental impact of conventionally farmed beef and lab-grown meat
Image Source: Environmental Science and Technology Journal

Global hunger could be addressed

We are already struggling to feed every mouth in the world, and the population is expanding rapidly. Chronic hunger is an immediate problem that we must start to address now. Lab-grown meat requires less water and land. As a result, water can be directed towards agricultural purposes and food security can be obtained.

Birds-eye-view of six pairs of empty cupped hands forming a semi-circle
Image Source:

The downsides of lab-grown meat

Unfortunately, the innovative process of lab-grown meat is not without its problems.

Long-term environmental impact

Some research suggests that over time, the environmental impact of lab-grown meat could actually be higher than conventional livestock. These studies considered the energy costs of the infrastructure required to develop cell cultures.

While animals have immune systems that inherently protect them against bacterial infections, cell cultures do not have such natural protective structures. To ensure that bacteria do not enter the cultured meat environment, extremely high levels of sterility are required. Sterile settings are most often created with the use of disposable plastic materials. However, this brings the plastic problem to the centre of the stage. Already, plastic waste has a devastating effect on our marine ecosystems, and humans are inhaling microplastics from the polluted air every day.

A hand wearing a blue disposable glove holds a dirty medical mask that has been discarded on the beach
Image Source: UN News


Cultured meat is expensive to produce at over $2000 for one pound of meat. Not many people will be willing to pay $500 for a burger! However, when lab-grown meat was first introduced, it cost more than $300,000, so there has already been a huge cost reduction/ It is predicted that over time, a cultured meat burger will be the same price as a conventional meat burger – although there is little indication of when exactly this will be.

The process might be costly now, but Memphis Meats investor, Ryan Bethencourt, believes that there is potential to feed millions for $1-2/pound in the long run.

Hesitancy and resistance to lab-grown meats

Even if the process becomes affordable and efficient, there remains the issue of changing people’s attitudes. Will people want to eat lab-grown meat?

72% of young adults in Sydney were not ready to personally accept cultured meat. Despite this, they considered it to be a feasible idea in the near future given the urgency of improving sustainability and animal welfare.

There is a recognition that the lab-grown meat industry has a literal image problem. According to Max Elder (Research Director of the Food Futures Lab), food images influence cultural attitudes and appetites. In the media, cultured meats are often presented as scientific and unpalatable – a meal in a sterile petri dish. Elder argues that we need images of lab-grown meat that compare to those of conventional meat. For example, colourful, delicious-looking burgers coupled with happy, satisfied families in advertisements. This is essential in addressing doubts about lab-grown meat.

A pair of hands wearing blue medical gloves holds a small petri dish and uses tweezers to pick up a tiny piece of lab-grown meat
Image Source:

Success in Singapore

In Singapore, lab-grown meat created in bioreactors has been approved for sale by a regulatory authority for the first time. Produced by the US company Eat Just, ‘chicken bites’ passed a Singapore Food Agency safety review. Josh Tetrick, CEO of Eat Just, believes this is a momentous step in the meat industry and could open the door to a future where most meat is produced without killing livestock.

Two pieces of fried lab-grown chicken on a wooden platter
Image Source: Just Eat

Other options for a sustainable future: eating bugs!

When most people think of a protein-packed, delicious snack, bugs are probably the last thing to come to mind. But insects are actually a valued source of nutrition for two billion people around the world. In 80% of the world’s nations, people consume between 1,000 and 2,000 species of bugs. In parts of Africa and Asia, these tiny creatures form a core part of daily diets. Bugs are sustainable and healthy, non-bug eaters just have to fight against those preconceived icks!

Processing insects can also occur without sophisticated machinery. This means that the poorest members of society can engage in work. As a result, the seeds for employment and income are planted and poverty may be diminished.

Rows of clear plastic cups filled with fried crickets and bugs
Image Source: Shutterstock

In the Western world, insects as snacks remain a culinary curiosity and many are reluctant to conceptualise bugs next to their beef burgers and steaks. But with the world population approaching 10 billion by 2050, the case for farming insects becomes palatable. Expanding consumption of edible insects can greatly reduce world hunger whilst cutting carbon emissions from food production. According to FAO, farming insects generates one-hundredth of the emissions of the same output from beef cattle or pigs. Similar comparisons can be made with land needed, feed needed, and water used.

For example, here’s how much land it would take to produce 1kg of protein from cattle, pork, chicken, and insects:

  • Cattle: 200 square metres (m2)
  • Pork: 50 m2
  • Chicken: 45 m2
  • Insects: 15 m2

Overall, farming bugs uses fewer natural resources. Compared with beef farming – which is land-intensive – insect farming is a far more efficient way to use what land we have left. If you’re keen, check out this article on a bug taste comparison!

A hand holds up a blue and yellow wrapped cricket energy bar outside an IGA grocery store
Image Source: Supplied via

Nutritional value of bugs

With slight variations depending on the type, most bugs contain animal protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and prebiotic fibre, and since we eat them whole (as opposed to just parts) there is minimal wastage. When raising insects, they become what they eat. For instance, if crickets are fed lots of carrots, then they will be high in vitamin A. In this way, we can control the diets of some bugs to obtain an optimally nutritious product.

Similar to the need for consumers to get over the sterile imagery of lab-grown meat, perhaps we also need to reconstruct our perception of bugs from dirty pests to legitimate protein sources; animals – just like the other meats we eat.

Protecting our home with lab-grown meat

The way we breed animals has been recognised by the United Nations, scientists, economists and politicians as creating many interlinked human and ecological problems. With the global population expected to skyrocket, we have to get serious about how we are going to feed billions of mouths while protecting the environment. One of the simplest and cheapest ways to reduce our human impact on the environment is to eat less conventional meat. Multi-national companies are leading contributors to greenhouse gases. But the emerging innovation in meat production processes offers a course of change for these business giants. Businesses must learn to change and adapt to become global leaders in the quest for sustainability.

On the face of it, the concept of lab-grown meat is certainly unusual and perhaps unsettling. But what is more unsettling? Tortured animals, deforestation and lack of food, or eating a piece of (real) meat grown from cells devoid of any bacterial contamination or slaughtered animals? Cultured meats are a looming part of our future. Perhaps it is something we have to get used to if we are serious about saving our earth, one petri dish at a time.

A hand wearing a blue disposable glove picks up a tiny petri dish with a small piece of lab-grown meat in it, there are four other petri dishes in the background
Image Source:

Learn more about your consumer identity in relation to the environment here.

Leave a Reply