Cultured Meat: Protein Grown in Labs Is Humane, Climate-Friendly and Getting Cheaper

The fact is that meat eating leaves a lot bigger carbon footprint than vegetables. Cultured meat however can shift that footprint.
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It’s not true that the Cherokee word for “vegetarian” literally translates “poor hunter.” That wisecrack works in Indian country because of venison’s historic role in our culture, because so much tribal politicking goes on at hog fries and fish fries, because—well, the list could go on and take in many Native cultures in addition to those that revolved around the bison until the settlers adopted purposely extinguishing the bison as a tactic of war.

Still, most of us believe that non-human animals live for their own reasons and few of us deny the science of global warming because we’ve seen the changes. My own attention to climate disruptions started with remarks from Alaska Natives posted on the Internet rather than from Al Gore. The fact is that meat eating leaves a lot bigger carbon footprint than vegetables.

To address that and other problems, there is an Indiegogo campaign for Memphis Meats. I am probably in a minority liking plant-based meat substitutes. Still, quorn and soy and seitan and all the other plant substitutes may be tasty, but they will not fool a practicing carnivore. Memphis Meats are meat, made from cultured meat cells. No need for pasture, for feeding, for slaughter. Low carbon and cruelty-free real meat.

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Raising animals for slaughter is the cause of 51 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, meaning you can actually do more good for the planet by giving up meat than by giving up a personal automobile. Our love of meat also accounts for a third of fresh water use and 45 percent of land use.

Keeping down the cost of meat is the excuse for the barbarities of modern factory farms: animals raised unable to move around and in such close quarters they have to be pumped full of antibiotics to keep them alive for slaughter. Then there are slaughterhouses laid out in a way that causes the animals to die terrified.

Fear and stress in the animals is so commonly understood to cause meat to have bad taste and short shelf life that the industry has abbreviations for the common results, PSE (pale soft exudative) and DFD (dark, firm and dry). These inferior products are often slipped into ground meat with enough of the good stuff to hide the taste.

Memphis Meats CEO is Dr. Uma Valeti, who trained as a cardiologist. This does not mean cultured meat will be heart healthy. So far, researchers have been able to make marginal adjustments to insert “good” rather than “bad” fat in cultured meat, but too much of this affects the taste.

The benefits to the heart are not yet demonstrated, but cultured meat is grown without antibiotics, meaning that it will not contribute to the rise of “superbugs” that resist antibiotics. There is also no need for growth hormones, but the most important health benefit is that fecal contamination goes from fairly common to zero. Without feed lots or cross-contamination in slaughterhouses, the chances for E. coli or salmonella are minimal, with what chances there are coming from human handlers.

Cost is always an issue, so let me start with some context. I was raised in the Muscogee Creek Nation, where there were probably more cows than people. I was used to paying 15 cents for a small hamburger. Ramp it up to a quarter pound and add lettuce and tomato to the pickles and onions and it would set me back 40 or 50 cents.

I first saw an ordinary hamburger that cost more than a buck in 1968 in New York City. It was an early clue that the money I had set aside for the trip was not going to allow me to stay very long.

With that background, I note the first hamburger produced with cultured meat that the makers were willing to submit to a taste test was produced by Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Consumed publicly in 2013, that burger cost over $330,000. Most of us could not afford fries with that, and I had a vision of a sign above the Golden Arches, “Over Two Sold!”

The research that bore fruit—or, rather, a very expensive hamburger—in 2013 was funded by Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google. Brin explained in a promotional video, “When you see how these (factory farmed) cows are treated, it’s certainly something I’m not comfortable with.”

The Brin-funded burger was grown from cells extracted from the shoulder of a living cow, who went back to pasture none the worse for the experience. Brin expressed hope that the science could be scaled up fairly quickly to bring the price down.

A mere two years later, the BBC reported that the same lab had brought the cost per cultured meat burger down to $11.36. That is still too pricey for the Golden Arches, but it would do if somebody, for example, wanted to serve meat from an endangered species without harming an animal protected by law.

Memphis Meats is going farther, aiming at head to head competition for cultured meat with regular meat on both taste and cost. According to those consecrated Very Important Food Critics by being allowed a sample Memphis Meats meatball, they’ve got the taste nailed. They are moving right along on the cost.