Column Road

What’s the beef with ‘Cultured Meat’?

Does ‘cultured meat’ benefit animal welfare? Source: Jeroen van Luin (via flickr).

Karis Pearson

Would you eat a burger grown in a Petri dish?

In 2013, the first person did, when Mark Post, the Dutch researcher, created the world’s first beef burger that was successfully grown in a Petri dish, from one tiny muscle cell. Since then, lab-grown or ‘cultured meat’ as it has come to be known, has developed and become far cheaper to produce and sell (approximately £1,992 cheaper in fact) making it far more likely to feature in our food future.

According to people who have tasted the lab-grown burger, it is uncanny to the real thing, which is brilliant news for those who miss the taste and texture of meat products but avoid them for moral and ethical reasons. However, most people don’t like to be to be told what they can and cannot eat, and the idea that their meat might eventually be grown in a dish rather than in a field (or in most cases, a factory farm) doesn’t please everyone.

I was vegetarian for about three years before recently going vegan and I speak to plenty of people who just don’t get why, as a veggie, you’d want to eat a fake meat meal. Back home, I recently visited my aunt and uncle, and after an afternoon of catching up I ended up staying for dinner. I’d bought my own food just in case – a contingency you get used to once you go vegan. When it was all cooked and plated up my uncle looked from me to my Linda McCartney sausages, his expression confused.

“I just don’t understand. Why would you want to eat something that looks and tastes like meat? You don’t want to eat meat.”

It’s frustrating. The consensus seems to be that vegans who eat fake meat aren’t being very good vegans. It’s not the shape of the sausages that offends me. I’m not put off by how meat tastes, I ate it for 18 years quite happily (and ignorantly). With that being said, I recently tried a mock meat burger at a new eatery in Cardiff that tasted disturbingly similar to a Big Mac, and not in a good way (if there is such a thing). But no, I don’t object to foods which liken themselves to meat but are not, because my issue with meat is the treatment of the animal that was killed for its meat; how its production affects the environment; and what it will do to my body if I eat it.

The brilliant thing about cultured meat, is that it would have none of the impacts on animal welfare or the environment but would taste the same. Hence why in many ways, if cultured meat were to become mainstream, it would be the better choice. Cultured meat can be produced with up to 96% less greenhouse gas emissions than regular meat, making it a much more environmentally sound food source. Unfortunately, one thing that is not guaranteed at this point is an increased health benefit of cultured meat that you get in soya-based protein products, like Linda McCartney products, which currently dominate the veggie food market. Linda’s contains less unhealthy saturated fat than real meat, which contributes to many cardiovascular issues.

Unsurprisingly, the innovations in cultured meat have been pretty well received by animal rights groups, including PETA. Decoupling meat-tasting products from the violence of the livestock industry will have positive consequences for the welfare of animals, as rather than facing slaughter only a small amount of their muscle tissue (taken without harming the animal) will be needed to produce food that tastes the same. Last year, San Francisco-based food technology company Memphis Meats developed various other ‘meat’ products, including chicken and duck. The PETA website has referred to the US company’s southern fried chicken as “The Chicken Tender That’s Tender To Chickens”.

However, despite all the hype, not everyone is as excited about these innovations in cultured meat. BBC Two’s Victoria Derbyshire recently debated this topic on her show, with Elisa Allen, a member of PETA and Nick Allen (sadly of no relation, as I imagine that would’ve led to some titillating chat round the family dinner table), Head of the British Meat Processors Association. Nick Allen expressed concern that the “beautiful patchwork of countryside” blanketing much of the UK would disappear if farming were to be replaced by lab-grown meat. Huh. I find his concerns about the potential neglect of the UK’s beautiful patches of greenery and wildlife intensely frustrating. As it stands, meat consumption worldwide is predicted to increase, and so will carbon emissions, leaving biodiversity under threat. Never mind the deforestation of tropical rainforests in the pursuit of beef, so long as Nick Allen can still drive around the Somerset countryside and marvel at a few fields of cows and sheep.

For many people the thought that their dinner is being scientifically created rather than naturally grown may be unappealing. Personally, I don’t agree. The term ‘natural’ is used dangerously loosely within the meat and dairy industry and it is overlooked by those criticising the lab-grown product that plenty of products assumed to be ‘natural’ in UK supermarkets are pumped full of antibiotics in order to make them safe for consumers to eat. The reality of animal agriculture is often far from the picturesque country farmyard the meat industry would have us all believe.

If cultured meat really takes off it could come to be a regular fixture on the dinner table in the years to come. If this is the case, we’ll likely find it being sold more casually in restaurants and fast-food places too. This is good news all round, as what holds many people back from cutting down on their meat consumption is convenience, and seeing cultured meat come to places like McDonald’s (which is obviously a heck of a long way off) would change the game.

Now for the shameless veg plug. With convenience dominating many of our food choices, one of the best times to break the cycle and give going meat-free a try is when coming to university. Hear me out, going veggie or vegan doesn’t have to mean spending loads of money or getting really into kale. I’m not obsessed with yoga or turmeric and trust me, I still eat plenty of chips. Cardiff has a pretty good veggie/vegan scene, so your food doesn’t have to be boring and you don’t have to go shopping around hippie health food stores either. Tesco has recently broadened its range to include all sorts of fake meats, cheeses and ice cream (try the vegan Cornetto), but obviously, if you’re happy with lentils and veggies, you can buy those just about anywhere!.

Plenty of students come to uni having never cooked their own meals before and if that’s you, you might find cutting back on meat (not necessarily cutting it out) is both the cheaper and easier way to go. It also saves you having to ask your house mates to come and have a look at your chicken breasts to reassure you that you’re not about to get Salmonella. You can’t get much more convenient than that.

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