Agriculture today is a modernized relic of the practices of the earliest humans. We’ve grown crops and raised livestock since the dawn of time, but is it also possible to grow meat? Lab-grown meat, also known as clean meat, is the product of animal flesh through a process known as vitro cultivation — the growth of cells and tissues in a controlled environment. The process begins by collecting myosatellite cell samples from the animal and it is from there that the selected samples are placed within an environment with the necessary nutrients and growth elements that are naturally present in animals. Scientists in the lab allow the cells to continue proliferating until trillions of cells are produced before restricting the growth elements which creates the phenomena of differentiation which later goes on to gradually compound into homogenized muscle fiber. A water-based gel combined with the contraction attribute that the muscle fibers have results in the new growth of muscle tissue which is not too alien from the meat we eat. The growth of meat in a selected environment is reliant on the ability of myosatellite cells to reproduce muscle tissue in case of damage to the tissue.
Vegetarian and vegan culture is known to hold ethics as the main principle, but that concept will also undoubtedly be subject to change if meat can be consumed sans-cruelty. Sans-cruelty can be translated differently but ultimately is dependent on the individual; some vegans and vegetarians opted to eliminate meat from their diets on the beliefs that other living things were not made for our consumption, while others were repelled by the inhumane conditions and maltreatment animals were subjected to prior to slaughter. Curious about vegans and vegetarians’ thoughts on ethical meat, I turned to the internet to garner responses. Most answered that they believed the food technology to be beneficial and wished to see the switch in meat consumers but remained unyielding in their own disdain for flesh. I had thanked them for their time until a couple of minutes later, a vegan responded that they had enjoyed the taste of meat and would be willing to eat it if there was no harm done to animals. Livestock farms are notorious for animal cruelty and that is what has popularized vegetarian and vegan culture along with the allure of a healthier guilt-free lifestyle for some, but ethics isn’t the only pillar of reason for meat-free diets. Animal agriculture is also actively exacerbating the climate crisis.
Climate change has been fuelled by the agricultural industry through various mediums due to the demanding conditions required to raise livestock like land space. Bloomberg states that 41 percent of American land is used for animal agriculture while a collective 26 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface is used for livestock grazing. That’s before we take into account the intensive resource use consumed by animals before slaughter. A cosmical amount of water is consumed by cows which can be ascribed to their size; according to UNL Beef, water consumption varies individually but generalized, cows drink a gallon of water per 100 pounds in cold weather, and two gallons per 100 pounds in warm weather per day. Lactating cows require an estimated double that amount. Cows weigh an average of approximately 1200 pounds which would result in a consumption of 24 gallons of water per cow in warm weather. The environmental damage extends beyond just consumption, the gases released by livestock through burping or farting are potent greenhouse gases that contribute to trapping the heat energy from leaving the atmosphere. Animal agriculture alone is responsible for an exuberant 14.5 per cent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, the staggering amount of land space for grazing land and livestock farms require entire forests of trees that may have otherwise served as a carbon sink to be cleared away. Demand for meat is continuously growing with the world population and we need to implement new technology into agriculture to make the process more efficient and sustainable.
Science like this is transformative and multifaceted; it disrupts entire established cultures but isn’t limited to that: advanced technologies not only broaden our ability to solve big problems but also prevent them, like the coronavirus pandemic. Poor farm conditions which are not entirely uncommon or unheard of create a ripe environment for viruses and diseases to proliferate; infectious disease experts and epidemiologists warn that our next pandemic may be sourced from farm animals. Our current food systems are designed to host pathogens through farming models like concentrated animal feeding operations where thousands of (and often more) livestock share crowded living situations and that enables viruses to jump from one host to the next. The collection of genetic codes may be benign but once it has secured a host the virus replicates itself from there on and, although unlikely, it may mutate and continue to spread through the unassuming throngs of tightly packed animals. From there, it would not take too long for the virus to come into contact with humans. A variant of viruses are genetic code segmented parts composed together but if it were to come into contact with another of that kind through co-infecting a cell it would be possible that the offspring virus produced has properties neither of the parents had and CAFOs that house thousands of animal hosts make that scenario more than feasible. Our animal agricultural industry and the systems that get the meat to dinner plates are, by design, the perfect breeding grounds for a nasty new virus.
It is in our nature as humans to advance all creations of life and although some may believe cellular agriculture to encroach on nature’s design, our innate desire to make life more efficient has no limits. The meat we consume today is devoid of advanced technology, wasteful, contributes to and spawns problems, and is unethical, while the meat of tomorrow has the ability to transform even the most rigid attitudes about meat. Cellular agriculture’s stroke of genius doesn’t lie in simply advancing an ancient practice or human ethos, but because it’s tangible proof that our problems and solutions are often intrinsically interconnected with each other. It is technology like this that unlocks our ability to dynamically apply solutions to various issues in the world.
Tenzin Migmar is a 15 year old creator and curious learner with a hunger to explore what she doesn’t know yet. She is often reading, writing, or thinking about disruptive technologies and the future. Tenzin is passionate about artificial intelligence, research, reading, writing, female representation in STEM, and is focused on preventing racial/gender/etc biases from being transferred from humans to machines.