The Age of “Flesh Plants” has Arrived

lab grown meatThe U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the first time cleared a meat product grown from animal cells for human consumption, the agency announced on Wednesday. UPSIDE Foods, a company that makes cell-cultured chicken by harvesting cells from live animals and using the cells to grow meat in stainless-steel tanks, will be able to bring its products to market once it has been inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), said a release from the FDA.

This is actually a very important innovation. Studies have shown that beef consumption needs to be reduced by 90% in western countries in order to avoid the worst affects of climate change. Livestock farming accounts for 18% of human produced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. This is more than all emissions from ships, planes, trucks, cars and all other transport put together. It takes  25 kilograms of grain – to feed a cow – and roughly 15,000 litres of water. About  30% of the earth’s land surface is used for livestock farming.

Lab-grown meat is an efficient alternative. Of  course, the question of flavor has to be addressed. People who have tried it report that lab grown meat has a taste and texture identical to conventionally grown meat. Since it is indeed real meat, it shouldn’t be difficult to produce a palatable product.

I have heard people argue that the biggest obstacle is the so-called “yuk” factor. A room full of bulging, oozing flesh plants isn’t particularly appetizing. But it’s a whole lot more appealing than a slaughterhouse. After all, test-tube babies are real persons, seedless fruit is real fruit. Lab-grown meat is real meat.

In the end, whether this product is a success will depend on price. The universe of people concerned with animal welfare is small; the universe of people concerned about climate change is larger but that concern seldom translates into action. Lab-grown meat won’t make a dent in the market unless it can compete with conventionally-produced meat on price. There is no word yet on how much Upside Food’s chicken will cost. But an Israeli company “Future Meats” last year reported they could produce a chicken breast for $3.90. A boneless chicken breast weighs about 6 oz. That’s just over $8 per pound. The average retail price of boneless chicken breast in October was $4.67 per lb.

Lab-grown meat will remain a niche product until the price comes down.

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