Cultivated meat is big business. Since 2020, investors have provided more than $2 billion in funding to the emerging industry and the USDA recently gave permission for two companies to produce and sell cultivated chicken, making the U.S. the second country in the world to approve the novel products.
Cultivated meat is lab-grown meat that is grown from animal cells rather than on a live animal. (Yes, this is possible). It can be grown from chicken cells, cow cells, pig cells, and so on. While cultivated meat is considered part of the alternative protein movement, it's more of an alternative to traditional livestock farming than a plant-based product. It is, after all, meat.
Finding an alternative to traditional livestock farming is critical work, as the deeply flawed industrial system is rife with animal rights abuses, dangerous labor conditions and staggering environmental impacts. For our own wellbeing and for the planet, something has to change.
How does cultivated meat measure up as a potential solution? At this point, it's tough to tell.
Transparency = trust
We believe that transparency is essential to building trust, particularly regarding new foods made using novel techniques, such as cell-cultivated meat. However, due to intense industry competition, cultivated meat's production methods are closely held corporate secrets.
The Non-GMO Project's dedicated research team has been monitoring the progress of several cultivated meat products destined for the commercial market, looking for signs that genetic engineering is part of the process. For example, Upside Foods, one of the two companies that recently received USDA approval, has filed several patents related to genetic engineering and the production of lab-grown meat. SciFi Foods, another developer of cultivated beef, has discussed how CRISPR gene editing allowed them to reduce production costs 1,000-fold.
Future consumers of cultivated meat have the right to decide whether or not to eat products made with GMOs. Brands using genetic engineering to make their products must offer transparency to the general public. Disclosures are an opportunity to build trust with the people brands want to fall in love with their products.
Big meat's massive carbon footprint
Industrial-style livestock farming is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for an estimated 60% of the food system's carbon footprint. As climate scientists consistently point out, big contributors are also big opportunities for improvement. But, is cultivated meat a climate solution?
Early studies indicate cultivated meat might be too energy-intensive to move the needle on climate change. One recent paper (which has yet to undergo peer review) estimated cultivated meat's impact could be 4 to 25 times worse than conventionally-produced beef. And, because the exact processes used to make cultivated meat are still shrouded in secrecy, a full life-cycle accounting is tough to come by.
"But, will it scale?"
Cultivated meat's potential to replace conventionally-produced meat is hindered by technical, financial and practical limitations. In the end, it's a very costly product. The most frugal estimates report a wholesale cost of $29.50/lb. The price may come down as technology advances, but will it ever be comparable to conventionally-produced meat?
It's worth noting that conventionally-produced meat sold in grocery stores involves its own set of hidden costs. Meat is relatively inexpensive because of taxpayer-funded industry subsidies, the exploitation of workers and animals and widespread environmental degradation. The industry as a whole generates its own set of health risks, such as antibiotic resistance and emerging zoonotic diseases, chipping away at the wellbeing of people and planet.
As cultivated meat makes its debut, we urge brands to invest in building trust with their customers. Offering a full and transparent accounting of how products are produced. After all, respect and trust are essential to creating change — and isn't creating change what cultivated meat is all about?
The Non-GMO Project has a dedicated research department that monitors the biotechnology industry, including the development of cell-cultivated meat and seafood. We’re currently tracking about 150 companies in this category. We’ll keep you posted on how genetic modification fits into this emerging industry