It’s possible that lab-bred chicken will soon be available in the United States. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently gave the company Upside Foods the green light for the meat from the Petri dish: There are currently no further questions about the safety of the product, according to the FDA statement.

In general, however, there are not only a lot of questions surrounding the subject of laboratory meat, but also some myths.

Anyone who believes that laboratory meat is an animal-free product is wrong. In order to be able to grow meat in vitro, the cells of a real animal are the basic requirement. Whether beef, pork or chicken – muscle stem cells are taken from them, which are then cultivated in a culture medium consisting of various nutrients and growth factors, where they develop into muscle fibers. The muscle biopsy may be painful for the animals, but will not kill them.

It’s different with the calves, whose blood is needed for the nutrient solution in which the muscle cells are supposed to grow. “In almost all cell cultures used in biomedicine, fetal calf serum has been the gold standard for a very long time because it contains growth factors that are necessary for cultivating the cells,” explains Professor of Tissue Engineering and Biofabrication Petra Kluger researching laboratory meat at the University of Reutlingen.

Neither the calves nor their mothers survive this blood draw. Kluger is clear that the calf serum needs to be replaced when developing cultured meat. For ethical reasons, but also because the serum is far too expensive. “Meanwhile, there are already good substitute media without animal components,” says Kluger. It’s still expensive though.

Since laboratory meat is not yet consumed on a large scale anywhere in the world, we do not yet know the answer to this question. What we do know is that eating too much red meat in particular makes you sick: cardiovascular diseases and some types of cancer can be the result. Whether laboratory meat could change these signs cannot be said at this point in time.

It is conceivable that laboratory meat contributes less to the development of multi-resistant pathogens because fewer antibiotics are used. According to the consumer center, however, antibiotics are also used in the production of in-vitro meat to protect the cell cultures from infections.

In a barn in which many animals live closely together, diseases are transmitted more quickly and zoonoses that can spread from animals to humans are a real danger. This seems to be much lower when producing meat in the laboratory.

“Meat from the laboratory is not natural”, Petra Kluger hears this sentence again and again – and she can also understand it, on the one hand. “On the other hand, we are usually a long way from natural animal husbandry,” says the scientist. The image of the happy cow in the pasture full of mountain herbs may stubbornly stick in our heads, but it rarely has anything to do with reality.

On average, every citizen in the EU consumes around 80 kilograms of meat per year. The high meat consumption in industrialized countries is not only a huge ecological problem, it also endangers global food security. About 70 percent of the total agricultural land worldwide is used for animal husbandry. Calories and nutrients make a detour via the feeding troughs of factory farms before they too often end up on the plates of those who aren’t hungry, just hungry.

After summarizing the current state of research, Matin Qaim, agricultural scientist and head of the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn, comes to the conclusion that the industrialized nations must reduce their meat consumption by at least 75 percent.

Far fewer animals would have to be kept for the meat from the laboratory. Less land would be needed to grow fodder, less water would be needed and the emission of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide would be lower. The narrative of laboratory meat as “clean meat” at least suggests that the solution to the climate and food dilemma is near. But is that true?

“No,” says Qaim. “Even meat from the laboratory needs nutrients to be able to grow. These nutrients have to come from somewhere.” The problem that meat production consumes resources that could also be given to people directly, without detours and losses, remains.

Many of the environmental impacts of in vitro meat can only be estimated so far – large-scale production does not yet exist. However, one thing is clear: the production of laboratory meat cannot do without the emission of greenhouse gases. A great deal of energy is used from the production of the culture media to the bioreactors in which the muscle tissue grows. Exactly how much can be estimated and modeled, but cannot (yet) be said with certainty.

Some models assume that the greenhouse gas balance of laboratory meat is better than that of beef production, but significantly worse than that of conventional poultry meat production.

“That doesn’t mean,” says Qaim, “that laboratory meat won’t play a role in the future.” However, in vitro meat does not change the need to drastically reduce meat consumption.

Author: Julia Vergin

The original of this article “Laboratory meat does not solve all the problems of factory farming” comes from Deutsche Welle.