In 2022, it’s more common than ever to see the plant-based diet represented in the world of dining. From Impossible Burgers to dairy-free cheese, the sticky, laminated folds of restaurant menus have opened up to the idea of vegan and vegetarian cuisine. Your waiter doesn’t care whether you’re a life-long vegan, kosher or just watching your cholesterol — the reasons behind avoiding animal products are varying, and it’s never mattered less.
At the same time, recently, issues regarding animal agriculture have received more attention. Environmental impacts, excessive water use, land intensification and health impacts are all areas of concern that are becoming more common among consumers. Beef cattle production is responsible for around half of greenhouse gas emissions caused by agriculture, and many people report a desire to cut back on red meat consumption in favor of plant-based alternatives. For those who wish to eat less meat, the plant-based market has widened immensely to include a plethora of choices. While vegan diners could previously expect to order a black bean burger or simply stick to a salad, the emergence of products such as Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger have shifted the landscape of meatless options. Not only are these items spotted in the grocery store and on menus, but they are also now appearing in many fast-food spots and drive-throughs, as the brands create successful partnerships with global chains.
For some people who abstain from consuming meat, it might seem odd to seek out its taste and texture. After all, how can something be appealing while simultaneously going against your moral code? However, not everyone goes vegetarian for ethical reasons. In the case of health restrictions or environmental concerns, for example, people might still desire the sensation of a juicy burger or a crispy chicken nugget. This shared urge is what has made brands like Beyond Meat so profitable –– that post-bite reaction, that “I can’t believe it’s not real!” taste. The near-perfect imitation of an animal product is enough for many vegetarian and vegan consumers. Others want to push science even farther. While plant-based meat alternatives have been immensely successful, there is still something left to be desired –– genuineness.
Enter lab-made meat, food that truly is made of animal product, but neither involves the killing of animals nor the use of intensive agricultural practices. Decades ago, a scientist named Willem van Eelen was inspired to create a form of meat that could be grown in a lab using animal muscle tissues. In a world where meat consumption as a social norm is almost ubiquitous, people were quickly intrigued by the idea of lessening hunger and planetary pressures while preserving dietary customs. So how exactly does it work? After harvesting a small sample of muscle cells from an animal, scientists place the cells in bioreactors, where they grow over time and turn into muscle tissue. Based on van Eelen’s research, the product that forms can be shaped into any kind of meat like we would see in the grocery store.
Understandably, this process has left consumers with a number of questions and concerns. Many people are turned off by the idea of their food being grown in a scientific laboratory. However, researchers say that eventually, the process could be completed in smaller scale facilities akin to microbreweries. Additionally, the idea of such a complex and innovative process raises the question of price and access. Companies are currently working to develop a marketable and affordable process. Although lab-grown meat has yet to hit the American marketplace, buyers in Singapore were the first to taste lab chicken in 2020. The Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture announced in 2019 that they would oversee the development of these products and receive approval to market their cultivated meat.
Despite the massive growth in demand for plant-based products, most people still purchase meat, and climate change is worsening much faster than social norms can keep up. We can’t know exactly what the future holds for our planet and our diets, but it’s clear that change is necessary. To be explicit: lab-grown meat is not vegan or vegetarian, as it is real meat from a living animal. The key difference is that animals are not killed or put in pain through the process of cultivation (anesthesia is used to minimize pain). However, the harvesting of muscle cells continues the human tradition of utilizing animals for consumption and prioritizing our livelihood over that of other species.
It’s hard to quantify our morals, but we can measure the current state of the Earth’s climate and the impact of animal agriculture on the quality of our planet. When it comes to minimizing our use of precious planetary resources, lab-grown meat is definitely a step in the right direction. The American food sector has adjusted to the countless demands for dietary consideration, from vegan to vegetarian to keto to gluten-free to kosher options. Is there room on the grocery store shelf for a new product? The truth is, there might not be another option.
Sadie Groberg is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].