By Dustin Rhodes 

The whole idea behind lab-grown (also known as cell-cultured, synthetic or test-tube) meat has always sounded a little Utopian, as if conjured by a science-fiction writer imagining an ideal future where animals—both human and non-human—live in perfect harmony. Or at the very least, a more hopeful future where humans don’t eat them. 

But lab-grown meat has also, slowly and methodically, become an almost-reality, as scientists finally developed the basic technology around the turn of this century. Last summer, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture approved the sale of lab-grown chicken, even though it’s far from ready for mass production. In fact, this cell-cultured chicken is slated to appear on a few restaurant menus, in both California and Washington, D.C. (for now), imminently. But what exactly and how “ideal” is it? Is it good for humans? And more importantly, will it save animals? 

How the sausage is made 

As naturally curious children, most of us, at least eventually, started asking questions about the food we ate: “What are hot dogs made out of?” “What’s sausage?” “Where did these ham slices come from?” If our parents were honest, and our spirits still intact, most of us were horrified by what we heard—unwilling to believe that anyone would harm or kill a living creature for a sandwich, nugget or burger.  

For many years, while this technology was being developed and refined, we were told optimistic and reassuring tales of how lab-grown meat would not only spare animals, but the future, too: Since meat-eating is responsible for 14.5% of global carbon emissions, lab-grown meat promised to obliterate the unfortunate aspects of animal farming, both environmentally and ethically. Even some prominent animal rights advocates and vegans hopped aboard the lab-grown meat train, offering a not-yet-refined technology a veneer of respectability and promise. But the devil—in this case, the lab-grown meat itself—is always in the details. 

Synthetic meat production involves taking the cells of live animals—a chicken, a cow, a pig—and growing a lump of muscle tissue (the part of the animal that humans favor eating) in a lab. The technology does not exist to grow, say, a chicken breast or a slab of steak. It’s described, in its current state of evolution, as a technology that can produce the components of animal products rather than the full-on array of dismembered animal parts one would see in a grocery store meat case.  

Food scientists submerge the cells in a stainless steel vat of nutrient-rich broth (which contains multiple animal products) containing all the ingredients cells need to grow and divide. After a few weeks, the cells begin to adhere to one another and produce enough protein to harvest. Finally, the scientists texturize the meat by mixing, heating or shearing it. It’s then pressed into nugget or cutlet shape. 

But is it even vegan? 

On the surface, lab-grown meat sounds like a promising alternative to the environmentally and ethically abhorrent practice of eating animals. But the production of lab-grown meat requires the use of live animal cells—which must come from live animals. As mentioned above, the medium in which the cells are grown is filled with animal products, too.  

It’s true that animals don’t need to be killed to produce lab-grown meat, but veganism was born from the idea of not exploiting animals—not simply not killing them. Less obviously, lab-grown meat still perpetuates the idea that meat eating is essential, healthy, acceptable, while it’s problematic in all ways in the modern world, because we can survive without it. In truth, meat eating exists because it’s culturally acceptable, familiar and, as omnivores love to point out ad nauseam, because it tastes good. At least to some. But those are excuses, not reasons. 

The companies creating and marketing lab-grown meat—in the United States, there are currently two—are desperately trying to market these Frankenstein-esque products to appease the consciences of vegans, omnivores, environmentalists, so that no one thinks too deeply about the moral correctness of these food experiments. It remains to be seen how the public will embrace the idea of lab-grown meat that may not kill animals, but still enslaves them to our palates and plates.  

The true cost of lab-grown meat 

One of the more shocking aspects of lab-grown meat is the cost itself: It’s currently $125-$395 a kilogram, or 35 ounces. (For reference that’s about 5 or 6 traditional hamburgers.) Thus, while its existence purports to be about saving the planet, the reality is that it’s yet another elitist, fetishized and rarified  food trend to appease those who pretend to care but do not pretend to be willing to change anything about their current destructive habits or exploitative lifestyles. There is still the deeply rooted (and tragically wrong) idea that humans do not need to dramatically change the way we live to address the climate crisis, which is well underway. Lab-grown meat is arriving at the last minutes we have to address the way we live as a species, as a global community, before it’s irreversible and too late. 

Another shocking “cost” of lab-grown meat is the amount of space it takes to produce it, at scale, for a wildly overpopulated planet that continues to grow rapidly and unsustainably. By 2050, it’s expected that human population will explode to over 9 billion, a number that will, by almost every estimate, create the causes and conditions for environmental collapse.   

For cultivated meat to have significant impact, the industry will have to scale to a level previously unmatched by any biopharma, fermentation or biotechnology business in history. According to a report on cultivated meat, to build out cultivated meat production to reach 1 percent of the protein market would need between 220 million to 440 million liters of fermentation capacity, or roughly 88 to 176 Olympic-size swimming pools. For context, the current biopharma industry has less than 10 swimming pools at capacity. In other words, cultivated meat requires massive amounts of infrastructure, space, resulting in more destruction of the environment. 

Not ready for prime time 

While lab-grown meat continues to be marketed and sold to the public as a solution to animal suffering and environmental devastation, it does nothing to solve either problem. 

And it’s unnecessary because vegans have delicious, healthy alternatives to eating meat.  

Impossible Burger, Beyond Meat and Meati, are just some of the plant-based meat options available without the expense of lab-grown meat production, the flawed ethics of animal exploitation or the need to create an additional massive infrastructure.  

The endless possibilities of a vegan, plant-based diet already exist. 


Friends of Animals’ President Priscilla Feral is the author of three vegan cookbooks: The Best of Vegan Cooking; Dining with Friends; and For the Love of Dog Biscuits. You can order them in our online store, where you will also find an assortment of vegan t-shirts and accessories.