Interpretive Summary: Cell-Based Meat Collective
By Anne Zinn
Animal meat has long served as a source of essential nutrients and will continue to do so as the population and global demand for conventional meat grows. To date, the acquisition of meat has required the killing of an animal, which, in today’s age, can be resource-intensive and have potentially negative environmental impacts, and public health and social implications. One proposed solution to decreased reliance on conventional meat from animals has been the development and utilization of “cell-based” or “cultured” meat, which is muscle grown in vitro from animal cells, without the animal and its physiological processes and without animal slaughter. Recently, increased research and commentary on the potential for cell-based meat to be a viable option and potential alternative to conventional meat have been significant. In the August 2020 issue of the Journal of Animal Science, two papers discuss the potential impacts of and considerations necessary for cell-based meat to become a “normalized” product for mass consumption.
The first, written by Christopher J. Bryant (Department of Psychology, University of Bath & Director of Social Science at the Cellular Agriculture Society), evaluates social issues, such as consumer appeal and acceptance, media coverage, religious status, regulation, and potential economic impacts of the development and consumption of cultured meat. To begin, Bryant discusses the importance of media coverage and how it is likely already playing a crucial role in shaping public perceptions of food technologies. Most of the early media coverage of cultured meat in the United States and Europe has been either neutral or positive, which has led to an overall relatively positive feeling within the population, but much of the media coverage has been through the lens of “scientific discovery,” which can ignore some of the social impacts Bryant wishes to explore. Bryant then explores the implication of religion in cultured meat consumption, outlining religions with specific rules and customs around meat consumption (Judiasm, Islam, Budhism, and Hindu). Qualitative research has been conducted to evaluate certain religious populations' willingness and interest in consuming cultured meat as it relates to their customs. Bryant moves on to discuss the need for better defined regulations in the United States and Europe, including the need to determine whether or not cultured meat can be defined and marketed as meat. Under existing regulations, cultured meat does not qualify as meat. Bryant also addresses potential economic impacts that cultured meat could have, specifically as it relates to traditional animal farmers, potential consolidation of food production, and the potential price of cultured meat. Some have voiced concerns that cultured meat could exacerbate the inequalities that already exist between the rich and the poor; while cultured meat is speculated to feed the masses at a lower cost than conventional meat, this would leave conventional meat as a luxury to those that could afford it.
To complement Bryant’s paper, a second paper was included to holistically assess cell-based meat as a food and highlight the challenges and opportunities associated with this novel food product. The primary author, Dr. Cameron Faustman (Department of Animal Science, University of Connecticut), and his team emphasize that much of the debate regarding cell-based meat has been focused on cultural, environmental, and regulatory considerations and that it is important to also consider the biology and engineering required to optimize the manufacturing process. The paper begins by defining cell-based meat at its simplest and outlines a brief history of cell-based meat from proof-of-concept in 2013. Faustman then goes on to explain the important biology and engineering of cell-based meat, referencing a paper written by Thorrez and Vandenburgh (2019) that highlighted several challenges that remain with the functional engineering of meat, including whether or not cell-based meat can provide essential minerals, creatine, carnosine, and B and D vitamins to the same extent as conventional meat.
As referenced earlier, cell-based meat has gained traction due to the increasing global consumption of meat and the ever-growing world population. This increase in consumption leads to an increased need to land, water, and energy to support greater numbers of animals, which in turn will lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions and an increased carbon footprint for food-producing livestock farmers. This opens the door for new technologies that can address these concerns while still addressing the ability to feed a growing population. While cell-based meat production appears to address certain concerns, Faustman et al. cautions that the energy requirements for cell-based meat could be significant and that the associated climate impacts could approximate or even exceed those for the cattle industry; because a well-defined process for the manufacture of cell-based meat has not yet been finalized, it is not possible to accurately predict the climate impacts of cell-based meat just yet. Additionally, Faustman et al. outlines concerns around animal welfare, the ethics of raising animals for food, and the perception that conventional meat may be detrimental to the human diet, emphasizing that much of the positive perception of cell-based meat comes from the removal of the animal from the process, addressing animal welfare issues, but also notes that this may not be enough to satisfy non meat eaters.
Similarly to Bryant, Faustman et al. then discusses the cultural implications associated with cell-based meat, including religious considerations, and the regulations that exist and that still need to be defined as the market grows. Faustman et al. also then spends time discussing what makes meat, meat and outlines the energy that has been put into what cell-based meat should be called and how it can be marketed.
Both papers agree that the “cell-based” or “cultured” meat industry has the ability to disrupt the conventual meat market and provide a solution for some of the concerns that face the livestock industry today. It has projected that cultural meat will grow so rapidly that by 2040, it will capture 35% of the value of meat sold, but this shift still requires increased understanding of technologies, concrete regulations, and a substantive change to how various populations view the role of conventional meat and how the overall population would accept this product.
The full papers, along with a helpful infographic, can be found in the August 2020 edition of the Journal of Animal Science and on the journal’s website.