Is lab-grown meat vegan? Or should it be avoided by animal lovers?

A few years ago lab-grown meat was still a one-off gimmick produced by a scientist in a university lab. But buying a lab-grown burger patty at your local supermarket might soon be a reality. Does this mean that vegans can soon enjoy juicy ‘beef’ burgers? The short answer is no. At the moment, lab-grown meat is not (yet) vegan. To understand why we will delve into what lab-grown meat is and how it is made. You might be surprised by some cruel practices involved. We will also explore whether or not it is possible to produce meat without using animals in the future. If you want to learn more about veganism in general, please check out this article.

What is lab-grown meat?

The jury is still out on how to call the newest fad in the land of processed foods. Besides lab-grown meat, the terms cultured meat, slaughter-free meat, in vitro meat, cultivated meat, and cell-based meat, have all been used to describe the meat produced by an in-vitro cell culture of animal cells. Marketers of the product even go as far as to brand it as ‘clean’ meat. Lab-grown meat should not be confused with bioengineered meat, which is a 100% plant-based product created to have the look, taste, and texture of meat. 

The idea of cultured meat is not recent and has almost a 100-year history. In 1931, Winston Churchill wrote: “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” In the 70s scientist were able to cultivate the first in vitro muscular fibres. It took another 40 years before the Dutch scientist Dr Mark Post created the first cultured beef burger patty in 2013. In the last decade, many entrepreneurs have launched lab-grown meat start-ups, and on 2 December 2020, the Singapore Food Agency approved the first cultured meat product for commercial sale. Naturally, other products, companies, and countries will follow soon. Therefore, we must know how it is produced and whether it is better for the life of animals, the planet, and our health. 

There are many different ways to cultivate meat, but currently, the most popular method is harvesting stem cells from a cow, pig, or chicken. Stem cells are the building blocks for everything in your body, from muscles to organs. Muscle stem cells are harvested from a live animal and placed into a favourable artificial environment supplying essential nutrients for growth, called the growth medium. Not to forget, scaffolding is needed for the cells to grow on, like collagen. The development of the stem cells into juicy steaks takes place in a bioreactor. Because we still need the animals for the stem cells, lab-grown meat is not vegan!

In some cases, the growth medium includes fetal bovine serum (FBS). Now, this might be something you’ve never heard of, but FBS is a common ingredient of animal cell growth media. Blood is harvested from a bovine fetus after the fetus is removed from the slaughtered cow. The blood is then further processed to produce the serum. Please think about that for a second. Luckily, there are alternatives to using the blood of unborn baby cows as the growth medium. New developments show that the cell culture medium can be produced entirely free of animal-derived components; at a large scale with low costs, making the product at least vegetarian. 

Will lab-grown meat be vegan in the future? 

Lab-grown meat is not vegan because it requires harvesting stem cells from a live animal. According to Mosa Meat, a start-up in the cultivated meat space, stem cells are taking from the muscle of an animal, done with a small biopsy under anaesthesia. This sounds less harmful than slaughtering cows for their meat or impregnating cows, so they lactate and we can take their milk, but will this approach still be possible when lab-grown meat hits industrial scales? Scientists are currently working on producing meat indefinitely from starter cell lines, without requiring new cells from a living organism. Starter cell lines are long-lasting lines called immortal cell lines, multiplying themselves forever. Unfortunately, these developments are still in its infancy and not yet tried and tested on an industrial scale.  

What is the verdict? 

As lab-grown meat hits the commercial market in Singapore, it still involves taking cells from live animals. According to Just Eat, the company behind the lab-grown chicken bites, they don’t kill a single bird in the production process. Interestingly enough, they also say their product is not vegetarian or vegan because it is still meat. However, according to a recent Guardian article, the growth medium for the Singapore production line includes foetal bovine serum. So, the chicken bites are not vegetarian because cows were slaughtered to make the growth of the cells possible, not because it is ‘meat’. The Guardian article is misleadingly called “No-kill, lab-grown meat to go on sale for the first time”. 

In a recent article published by GCF, someone wrote: “lab-grown meat is meat, and per definition, vegans do not eat meat”. I don’t entirely agree with this statement. Vegans don’t consume, buy, or use in any other form, products that included animals in the production chain, regardless of whether someone slaughtered the animal or not. For example, hiring a zebra for your engagement party, not vegan. However, meat can be vegan if we can produce it without involving animals in the production process. That isn’t to say that lab-grown meat still promotes the idea of carnism, which is the belief system that supports the consumption of animal products and meat. From this point of view, one could argue that the motivations behind cultivating meat are unethical. 

All in all, I do believe growing meat artificially could be a solution to reducing animal suffering that is involved in animal farming and the environmental impact of cow farts. 

In later articles, I want to dive into the possibilities to replace the fetal bovine serum, the environmental impact of lab-grown meat, and carnism. 

Would you eat lab-grown meat? Please let me know in the comments below.