Since the dawn of humanity, our species has survived by eating the flesh of other creatures. Our ancestors hunted, fished, and eventually farmed, all manner of animals. However, a small but growing industry is now looking to change that. Cultured meat, or meat grown from animal cells in a petri dish, is attracting more media attention every year. If this emerging industry succeeds, the steaks of the future may not come from a ranch or even a cow at all, and fish may not come from the sea.
Instead, they may be grown, cell-by-cell, in a lab.
Yet the cultured meat industry is still in its early stages, and it’s far from clear that cultured meat and fish will be able to compete in terms of taste, cost, and environmental responsibility in the coming years, or even decades. There’s also another big unknown: Will people actually want to eat such foods grown in an industrial lab? Studies suggest most consumers still have qualms about eating meat that doesn’t come from an animal.
And even Generation Z — known for their eager embrace of technology and openness to new concepts — isn’t interested in trying a lab-made steak, as a recent study from Australia shows (Bogueva & Marinova, 2020).
The finding backs up a handful of previous studies that have shown most people around the world don’t seem to be compelled to try lab-grown meat, despite a growing number of companies trying to rush it to grocery store shelves.
This hesitation appears to be justified. Lab-grown animal protein has many disadvantages that typical media coverage tends to overlook.
Lab-Grown Burgers and…Even Salmon?
Lab-grown meat is made from the same proteins and cellular structures as meat from living animals. The difference is that cultured meat is grown in a nutrient bath inside a lab or production facility, and is never part of an animal. Scientists simply take muscle cells from living animals and culture, or grow, them artificially. The resulting tissue can be harvested for use as food (Post, 2012).
It’s completely different from some of the new plant-based meat-alternatives on the market today, such as the Impossible Burger. Those patties resemble meat, but they’re actually made with plant products and soy, and have a dramatically different nutrition profile from actual meat.
You can’t buy cultured meat or seafood at the supermarket yet. In fact, few actual edible examples of cultured meat have actually been produced, including a $280,000 hamburger unveiled in 2013 — the first lab-grown burger ever produced. But several companies are now working to create cultured meat products, including lab-grown “fish” and “shrimp” for the mass market.
One San Francisco company is seeking to make “salmon” from cell cultures, while several startups, both in the U.S. and Europe, are hoping to create viable cultured “beef” to sell.
How consumers will view these products once they are ready for market, though, remains to be seen.
Wary of Cultured Meat
Generation Z is popularly defined as consisting of “digital natives,” a generation grown up fully immersed in technology, from smartphones to social media. The age group encompasses anyone born between the years of 1996 and 2010. They’re more likely to care about social issues, and to believe that climate change is a pressing problem.
To see how this generation of young adults and soon-to-be-adults felt about the prospect of cultured meat, Australian researchers asked Gen Z’ers in Sydney a range of questions about the product. This included whether they ate meat regularly right now, whether they would be open to trying cultured meat, whether they believed it would be good for the planet, and more (Bogueva & Marinova, 2020).
The results suggest Gen Z is hesitant about the concept of lab-grown meat. Some 72 percent of the young Australians surveyed said they wouldn't eat cultured meat products.
The Gen Z’ers listed a few reasons for why they’re wary of cultured meat. They saw it as being highly processed or chemical, were concerned that it wasn’t actually more sustainable, and simply didn’t think they’d like how it tastes, or might even be disgusted by it (Bogueva & Marinova, 2020).
While this study comes from Australia, a country with a strong heritage of meat production and consumption, there’s good reason to think that people in the U.S. might feel similarly.
A 2017 study of U.S. citizens, for example, found that while around two-thirds of respondents said they’d be open to trying cultured meat, just one third was willing to make it a part of their regular diet (Wilks & Phillips, 2017). That matches up with the results of another study comparing attitudes toward cultured meat in the U.S., China, and India. In that study, just 30 percent of Americans said they’d be very likely to purchase cultured meat, compared to around 60 percent in both China and India (Bryant et al., 2019).
FDA Approval Needed
Cultured meat still has significant hurdles to clear before it shows up in our roast beef sandwiches or fish and chips. For starters, there’s the cost. Most companies claim they’ll be able to slash costs to reasonable levels in the future, but the industry isn’t there yet. And cell-based meat also faces a host of technological issues before it can reach a consumer scale (Stephens N et al., 2018).
For example, the industry is still trying to find the optimal medium to grow the cells in. Current approaches typically involve using blood serum that’s been drawn from living animals — meaning that live animals are still needed. Some researchers have had success with media made from mushrooms or algae, but more research needs to be done (Stephens N et al., 2018).
Cultured meat must also pass a rigorous inspection by government food agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, before it is approved for consumers. That could potentially take years, and cost a lot of money.
And while the cultured meat industry promises to use up less land for pastures and raising feed crops, it could still require large amounts of energy. Some studies estimate cultured meat production could actually require more energy input than today’s poultry or pork industry (Alexander et al., 2017). As one report put it, “The financial and sustainability advantages are also unclear…”
Given that energy inputs for fish such as wild salmon are already among the lowest of any edible protein, it is doubly unclear that lab-grown salmon would benefit the environment – let alone match salmon’s quality in taste, nutrition or affordability.
Sustainable Alternatives Today
Whether or not lab-grown meat emerges as an alternative to the cattle and poultry raised in factory farms, or farmed fish kept in net-pens (which has its own serious problems), there are still options for those looking for more ethical, natural meat and fish today.
Getting your meat from a family-owned, sustainable ranch is one of the best ways to ensure your beef and poultry are both healthy and raised humanely. Free-range cattle have access to a variety of natural grasses, giving them vital nutrients and a unique flavor profile superior to feedlot-raised cattle. And truly grass-fed cattle are never taken to feedlots to be fattened up before slaughter, and are kept free of antibiotics and growth hormones.
The same concept goes for seafood. Fish from sustainably managed fisheries in the open ocean are the healthiest and most environmentally friendly option for seafood that there is today. Options like salmon from Alaska’s pristine waters, or individually caught albacore tuna from the North Pacific are both sustainable and nutritious.
Alexander, P., Brown, C., Arneth, A., Dias, C., Finnigan, J., Moran, D., & Rounsevell, M. D. A. (2017). Could consumption of insects, cultured meat or imitation meat reduce global agricultural land use? Global Food Security, 15, 22–32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gfs.2017.04.001
Bogueva, D., & Marinova, D. (2020). Cultured Meat and Australia’s Generation Z. Frontiers in Nutrition, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2020.00148
Bryant, C., Szejda, K., Parekh, N., Deshpande, V., & Tse, B. (2019). A Survey of Consumer Perceptions of Plant-Based and Clean Meat in the USA, India, and China. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 3. https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2019.00011
Post, M. J. (2012). Cultured meat from stem cells: Challenges and prospects. Meat Science, 92(3), 297–301. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.meatsci.2012.04.008
Stephens, N., Di Silvio, L., Dunsford, I., Ellis, M., Glencross, A., & Sexton, A. (2018). Bringing cultured meat to market: Technical, socio-political, and regulatory challenges in cellular agriculture. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 78, 155–166. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tifs.2018.04.010
Wilks, M., & Phillips, C. J. C. (2017). Attitudes to in vitro meat: A survey of potential consumers in the United States. PLOS ONE, 12(2), e0171904. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0171904