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Meat cultured through the manipulation and proliferation of stem-cell colonies may sound like something taken straight from the pages of a 1950s sci-fi magazine, yet the technology for ‘clean meat’ has already arrived. After all, the technology for generating artificial muscles has been around for over 20 years, and ‘clean meat’, as this animal-less meat is more commonly known as, is merely an extension of this.

The process behind meat culturing is not as complicated as one might think. A type of muscle cell known as a myocyte is obtained from an animal and it is then grown on a cell-based scaffolding inside a nutrient-rich medium. This is placed inside a vessel known as a bioreactor where various chemical and enzymatic processes enable the tissue to thrive. Eventually, the tissue forms multiple layers and resembles what would be described as meat, but instead of being obtained from the slaughter of an animal, it has been grown in a technologically-advanced laboratory environment.

“Meat cultured through the manipulation and proliferation of stem-cell colonies may sound like something taken straight from the pages of a 1950s sci-fi magazine”

For some, this technology marks the beginning of a new and more sustainable food supply-chain, while for others it spells the beginning of the end for traditional farming practices. The moral, ethical and environmental ramifications of ‘clean meat’ are still under debate and little is known about what the legislative guidelines would be if the practice of growing your own rib-eye became mainstream.  

What is known about ‘clean meat’, however, is that it could significantly change the way in which we treat and utilise animals. The modern practices of battery and factory farming could become things of the past, an eventuality welcomed by vegetarians and vegans alike who have continually campaigned to end animal cruelty in farming practices.

Modern farming practices have been under the microscope for at least the last 20 years. Exposé documentaries like Food, Inc. and Farm to Fridge have contributed significantly to the increase in vegetarianism and veganism by revealing amoral and inhumane farming methods, primarily in the United States. The production of artificial meat could potentially put a stop to these practices, while helping to curtail the environmental impact of modern farming.

“For some, this technology marks the beginning of a new and more sustainable food supply-chain”

According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), livestock contributed 9%, 39% and 65% of the total emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, respectively, in the year 2006. A separate study by the John Wiley library, conducted four years later, found that 23% of total annual global warming was “directly attributable to livestock”. The greenhouse gas emissions of livestock are only set to intensify as global meat consumption is expected to double in the next thirty years, according to the FAO.

There is a consensus that the artificial generation of meat will significantly curtail the current contribution of livestock to global warming. What has yet to be discussed, however, are the ethical issues concerning cultured meat and the livelihoods of cattle farmers around the world. Will a degree in microbiology eventually enable a person to become a bona-fide cattle farmer in a laboratory, all the while making farmers effectively redundant?

The answer to that question is not yet clear. The science of cultured meat is still in its infancy, with only a handful of dishes ever created by scientists. Additionally, the process of growing these meats is expensive. To buy a meal consisting of cultured meat today would cost more than three-hundred euro per pound, a hefty investment for a few-dozen bites. While Jerusalem-based, Future Meat Technologies state that artificial meat will be affordable by 2020, in all likelihood, it will be decades until it is readily available in your local supermarket.

When the technology does eventually become affordable, it will pose a dilemma for vegetarians and vegans who abstain entirely from the consumption of any type of animal meat. While some commentators have stated that “even vegetarians” could eat the lab-grown meat, they have neglected to mention that the cell-lineage must start somewhere and so the initial muscle cells must still be obtained from a living animal. Granted, this does not involve the slaughtering of said animal, but in a way, you are still eating the animal, just without the cells having grown inside the animal itself.

This fact will probably be sufficient for those vegetarians who are only opposed to the slaughter of animals. Those who are vegetarians on religious grounds might still abstain from lab-grown meat, as it is still a meat-related product and it does originally come from animals. Whether you agree or disagree with ‘clean meat’, be assured that it is on its way.