Since then, vegan products on the market have become far more impressive and sophisticated. For example, I’ve been able to try Brave Robot’s vegan ice cream made from non-animal-based whey protein and vegan macarons made with The Every Company's eggless egg whites, which both blew me away. The latest and greatest? Lab-grown meat.
- Remy Park, vegan food blogger behind Veggiekins
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has just given clearance to lab-grown meat, but it has been discussed at length within the vegan community for some time now—and it’s safe to say that vegans are very opinionated about it. Some vegans are in full support, while others are completely against the production of cultured meat, as it still requires animal involvement. (Regardless, if you're asking yourself, Is lab-grown meat vegan? The answer is no, but more on that in a second.)
The question is, does the good outweigh the harm?
Personally, I think it’s an innovation that does more good than harm—but I still wouldn’t eat it. It’s important to note that lab-grown meat is unlike precision fermentation foods (like the Brave Robot or Perfect Day products I mentioned) because it is cell-based, meaning living animals and their cells are used. As such, cultured meat is simply not vegan by definition. Ethically, vegans do not consume any animal products or animal byproducts. So while lab-grown meat will drastically reduce the need to slaughter livestock for food, the production is not a completely cruelty-free process.
I liken lab-grown meat to the classic Trolley Problem that poses the question: Would you kill one person to save five? In this case, the question is: Would you kill a few animals to save the lives of many future animals that would otherwise be raised for food? (Note that some companies that harvest animal cells for lab-grown meat do so from byproducts of animal slaughter, while others cultivate cells from animals that are not slaughtered, but are still kept for the purpose of harvesting those cells.)
There are definitely positives to lab-grown meat
There are some really positive things that lab-grown meat brings to the table. First and foremost, cultured meat could become an alternative to factory farming. Animals raised for food live in horrid conditions and the industry has a really damaging impact on the environment. Animal agriculture is responsible for a tremendous amount of greenhouse gas emissions and requires a lot of energy and resources just to produce enough feed for the animals. Overall, animal agriculture is a major contributor to and exacerbates climate change.
In addition to providing an alternative to factory farming, lab-grown meat also offers an option for those who do not enjoy existing plant-based meat alternatives like Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods products. It can be difficult to adjust to vegan food products and sometimes it’s the fact that something is labeled vegan alone that can be off-putting for consumers. It’s no secret that many popular vegan products are highly processed and vary in nutritional value compared to real meat, so cultured meat could be a replacement identical to the real thing with the same nutritional value.
While plant-based eating has skyrocketed in popularity, I don’t think there will ever come a day when we will be able to get everyone on board with reducing their meat consumption. Lab-grown meat provides a great solution to the issue of our overconsumption of meat.
There are some negatives to cultured meat, too
Like most new products to hit the market, however, lab-grown meat will most likely be out of budget for most. As demand for the product increases, the cost should inevitably lower, but I question whether lab-grown meat will ever be able to compete with the low price of factory farm meat. I also wonder how accessible these products will be. Will cultured meat products hit major coastal cities first? Will they ever make their way into suburban towns, middle America, and lower-income communities? If it’s anything like a large number of vegan alternative products, cultured meat will likely be out of reach and out of budget for many.
Accessibility aside, I anticipate that lab-grown meat will also be met with a lot of skepticism. It takes time for consumers to understand innovations in food and new products and there are many people that are opposed to consuming modified foods or lab-grown foods.
The thing is, lab-grown food is nothing new. Rennet, for example, made by precision fermentation, was approved by the FDA in 1990 and most consumers aren’t even aware that it’s a modified product. Similarly, most people are unaware of the unnatural practices involved in factory farming, like the use of antibiotics and hormones. But from an optics perspective, I can understand why the idea of meat grown in a lab sounds extremely unnatural. I mean, there are folks out there that are still perplexed by cashew-based cheeses, so consumer education will be really important.
Ultimately, I believe it's a step forward
Overall, I do think that lab-grown meat provides a helpful solution to an overconsumption problem that has only gotten worse with time. People want to consume meat and it’s simply not sustainable to continue to do so at the rate that we do. I am a firm believer in advocating for eating more plants and eating less meat. In my opinion, we could collectively address the issue of overconsumption of meat if everybody was willing to make a lifestyle shift—but from a realistic standpoint, I can accept that that will not happen. And so, lab-grown meat provides a solution that we desperately need. It’s imperfect, not at all vegan, and not something I’d be interested in eating, but it does more good than harm. I guess I’m saying that I’d pull the trolley lever.
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