In recent years the topic of clean meat has begun to attract media interest and capture the public’s imagination. It has also captured the attention of animal rights advocates and many who, for moral or lifestyle reasons, choose not to eat animal products, as well as those concerned about the negative effects of the global meat industry on the environment and its part in global climate change. But what exactly is clean meat?
Clean meat is perhaps more descriptively known as cultured meat. It is meat which has been produced in vitro by growing or culturing meat animal cells in a laboratory. It is produced by taking tissue cells from live animals and encouraging their division under precisely controlled conditions in a bioreactor, so to produce a material that looks like meat, tastes like meat, and has the eating qualities of meat. But it is not meat in strictly ontological terms, as it has not been derived from an animal that has been reared, killed and butchered for the benefit of human consumption. In essence it is a zoologically derived meat analogue.
Meat is a complex biological material. Fundamentally, it is soft tissue comprised of microscopic protein fibres called actin and myosin, responsible for muscle contraction, which are bound together as sheaths by connective tissue to form the skeletal muscle which we see when eating a quarter pounder steak or a lamb chop. While muscle fibres are proteinaceous and connective tissue is made from collagen, meat also contains intramuscular fat which contributes to flavour, texture, succulence and mouthfeel when cooked.
Clean meat is cultured ideally from myosatellite cells, or from embryonic or adult stem cells which have the capacity to differentiate into other, specialised cells. Myosatellite cells are the precursors of skeletal muscle cells and differentiate in order to form muscle fibres. Cells taken from live animals to produce clean meat must be cultured in a suitable growth medium, but muscle cells alone cannot produce a cultured meat which exactly replicates the real thing. A scaffold is required to provide a structure for cell attachment, and to support cell differentiation and proliferation. Scaffold material is of non-animal origin and must be edible, such as carrageenan. Additionally, if clean meat is to replicate meat-like qualities, collagen and fat need to be present and these may also be produced by similar tissue culture techniques to then be incorporated into the body of clean meat muscle fibres.
The production and growth of muscle protein requires a wide range of nutrients including amino acids, minerals, vitamins and regulatory hormones. Early research into the production of clean meat relied on bovine calf serum as the source of nutrients, but this raises many ethical questions not least because the manufacture of serum requires the exsanguination (extraction of blood) from bovine foetuses removed from slaughtered cows, with serum made by removing red blood cells, fibrinogen and clotting factors.
Various start-up companies have now been established to further the development of clean meat and to market their products. These companies will naturally, for sound moral and practical reasons, wish to avoid the use of bovine calf serum as the growth medium for the culturing of meat cells. Their target markets will include vegetarians and vegans. Growth media based on formulations of amino acids, vitamins, minerals and hormones are therefore secretively under development. In this respect, the possibility of using genetically engineered microorganisms – bacteria and yeasts – to produce the required nutrients by means of fermentation offers great potential. The intellectual property rights for those who are able to synthesise clean meat growth media without the use of animal-derived materials may prove to be very valuable.
The champions of clean meat claim that the technology and its products offer many advantages over farmed meat. The FAO (2006) and Gerber et al (2013) have highlighted the negative environmental impacts associated with meat animal production, including deforestation to create pasture, the degradation of pasturelands by over-grazing, and significant contributions to anthropogenic global warming through carbon dioxide and methane emissions. Global livestock production is also very demanding in terms of water consumption, with a 150-gram beef burger creating a water footprint of around 2,500 litres. The loss of global biodiversity is also a major concern as livestock production presents a serious threat to the ecology of many planetary biomes, with current rates of global species loss estimated at 50 to 500 times greater than the background rates in the fossil record.
As economies develop and become richer, this may be accompanied by growing demand for protein foods, particularly meat. Clean meat advocates argue that the technology can replace ‘traditional’ meat, protecting the planet through vastly reduced contributions of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane, immensely reduced water consumption, the avoidance of deforestation, reduced damage to pasturelands and reduced loss of biodiversity. Certainly these are possibilities, but a note of caution that promised environmental benefits are not yet proven. Atlantic bluefin tuna is heading towards extinction, but Finless Foods (see below) is working on the production of cultured fish muscle which could replace wild-caught fish and safeguard the species. So, clean meat may offer noteworthy environmental and biodiversity benefits. It also promises food safety advantages, being free from food-borne disease organisms such as bacterial pathogens, e.g. E. coli O157:H7, Salmonellas, Campylobacter spp. etc., as well as antibiotic residues and transmissible prion proteins, which caused the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) disaster in UK livestock production in the 1990s. Whether it has advantages for human health however is less clear, particularly given the ongoing debate about the health impacts of animal fats and in particular saturated fat.
The impact of human beings on the planet, its non-human animals and biodiversity generally has certainly been devastating. Carrington (2018) disturbingly reports that the advent of human civilisation has resulted in the loss of 83% of wild mammals. Basically, those few mammalian species that have proven useful to mankind as sources of meat have proliferated as agriculture has developed and other species have been squeezed out. Today, much of the meat intended as cheap food for wealthy markets in industrialised economies is produced using intensive methods, which some describe as factory farming. Such methods bring with them ethical concerns about animal welfare and environmental pollution, not forgetting the broader externalised issues of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss associated with crop production to feed the livestock industry. On the surface of it, clean meat appears to have a lot going for it, once the technology has been developed further. It could reduce and limit mankind’s negative impacts on the planet and the biosphere. However, we should remember that while clean meat appears to offer an alternative to conventional meat and could help to reduce animal suffering in intensive animal production by reducing the numbers of animals farmed, it cannot replace livestock production completely. Animals will need to be retained as the source of tissue cells for clean meat production.
People have always eaten meat and, as Jared Diamond (1997) points out, our hunter-gatherer ancestors enjoyed a plentiful and healthy diet which incorporated nutritionally important meat. The cost of clean meat and access to supplies will inevitably limit availability to those who can afford it. This will exclude people on low incomes and those in the poorest countries, for whom meat is an essential source of nutrition and one that is not always abundant. These people have little alternative but to utilise animals for food and certainly animal consumption is deeply embedded in many food cultures and religious belief systems. We must also recognise that farmed animals contribute to the provision of nutrition in other ways, such as fertilising the soils necessary to the production of crops that feed both humans and animals. The concept of abandoning meat altogether for a non-meat diet is open to challenge when one considers that many of the world’s most fertile soils, of significant importance to the growing of plant foods, were created substantially by the grazing of large herbivores over many millennia.
In summary, it is clear that clean meat may be an attractive proposition for those in economically developed societies who wish to dispense with the consumption of animal products. It offers one potential way to reduce genuine meat consumption for the benefit of the environment and biodiversity. But will clean meat ever replace farm-produced meat? This is unlikely, particularly if the development of clean meat does not result in a product, or products, which match meat itself. This said, all expert authorities acknowledge that world-wide meat consumption should be reduced for reasons of human health and environmental sustainability. In this respect, clean meat offers one rational and morally commendable alternative to authentic meat in the same way that alternatives based on plant and fungal proteins, such as from Fusarium venenatum, better known as Quorn, have found favour in the modern food marketplace. Indeed, as an interesting new food material, a foodstuff in its own right, and an ingredient for use in meat-free processed foods, clean meat appears to have much to commend it. But whether or not it becomes commercially viable and captures a market, only time will tell.
Carrington, D. 2018. Humans just 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals – study. The Guardian. London: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/21/human-race-just-001-of-all-life-but-has-destroyed-over-80-of-wild-mammals-study Accessed: 21/05/18.
Diamond, J. 1997. Guns, germs and steel. London: Chatto and Windus.
FAO. 2006. Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organisation. http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e.pdf Accessed: 21/05/18.
Gerber, P.J., Steinfeld, H., Henderson, B., Mottet, A., Opio, C., Dijkman, J., Falcucci, A. & Tempio, G. 2013. Tackling climate change through livestock – A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Websites of interest:
Finless Foods: https://finlessfoods.com/
Memphis Meats: http://www.memphismeats.com/
Mosa Meat: http://mosameat.eu/