It appears the future of meat might come from a laboratory instead of a pasture. Amid a stampede of businesses rushing to put lab-grown meat on our dinner plates, Bio-Tech Foods, a subsidiary of the prominent meat-packing behemoth JBS, is paving the way. Last week, the company declared plans to erect a large-scale cell-cultured meat plant in Spain, which they argue, “will contribute to the development of the first cultivated meat industrial production plant in Spain, and one of the most state of the art in the world,” according to CEO Iñigo Charola.
JBS projects that their lab-grown meat facility will outsize all competitors, capable of generating over 1,000 metric tons of ‘cultivated’ beef annually, with the potential for quadrupling the production. For those unfamiliar with the concept, cultivated meat involves the collection of cell samples from livestock. These cells are then fed nutrients and grown within large steel bioreactors, resulting in a product that’s touted to mimic the taste and texture of genuine meat.
While the cell-based meat industry is still in its early stages, several other companies, including California-based GOOD Meat, Mosa Meat from the Netherlands, and Israel’s Believer Meats, are in conversation with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) seeking approval for their products. Beyond imitation beef, UPSIDE Foods from California is also developing lab-grown chicken breasts, which received the FDA’s stamp of “safe for human consumption” last November.
However, the sprint toward the lab-cultured meat revolution has hit a few hurdles. The first is the need for substantial funding to ramp up production for their product to reach a feasible price point. The second, and perhaps more challenging, is overcoming what has been labeled “the ‘ick’ factor”. According to a recent study, a significant portion of both meat eaters (35%) and vegetarians (55%) expressed a sense of disgust at the idea of consuming lab-grown meat.
Amid this fast-paced change, traditional ranchers are keeping a close watch. Todd Wilkinson, President of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, expressed skepticism towards the touted sustainability of these lab-produced meats. Citing reports that claim the carbon footprint of artificial meat could be up to 25 times larger than that of traditional beef production, Wilkinson challenges the narrative of lab-grown meat’s environmental benefits. He counters, “They can say that it’s designed to feed the world, but it’s feeding the world a non-natural product and it’s a product that is going to require more energy to produce and don’t tell me it’s sustainable.”
As science thrusts us into a brave new world of meal options, it’s crucial to maintain a balanced perspective. Novelty and technological advancements shouldn’t blind us to the potential downsides, and no substitute, however innovative, can change the fact that real meat comes from ranches, not laboratories. The march of progress is inevitable, but as responsible consumers, we must also safeguard our traditions, health, and planet.