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The world’s taste for meat is causing environmental and ethical problems. But scientists have been busy working on a possible solution: meat grown in a lab.

The first lab-grown burger was eaten in 2013 at a press conference by its producer Mark Prost, a biomedical engineer at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. And it cost approximately U.S.$330,000. Ten years on and the food industry is working toward commercializing lab-grown meat products and adding them to restaurant menus at a price restaurant-goers can better afford. Nature reports this will happen in the U.S. by the end of 2023.

The United States Department of Agriculture recently approved the sale to consumers of lab-grown chicken products from two companies — Upside Foods and Good Meat. The U.S. is the second country to legalize the sale of lab-grown meat. Good Meat has been selling its products in Singapore for two years now. And according to experts, the industry is about to boom.

Business Wire estimates the cultivated-meat market will increase at a compound annual growth rate of 24.1 percent between 2025 and 2035 to reach 1.99 billion consumers. And more than 70 companies around the world are working to cultivate lab-grown meat.

But is it meat, or isn’t it?

Technically, it is. The meat is grown in a lab but it is grown from animal cells. The cells are placed in bioreactors — similar to a tank —providing the nutrients needed for procreation. The growth media (solid or liquid used to enhance growth) is then changed so the cells can develop into the main components of meat. So effectively, we are growing the meat, rather than growing the animal for meat.

Some people might welcome such a change in the food industry. And for good reason.

Our World in Data estimates 80 billion animals are slaughtered annually for meat. For context, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that in 2020, almost 1 million animals were killed for food every hour in the United States alone.

The livestock industry is also responsible for 16.5 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gases. The two main gases produced are methane, which is over 25 times more impactful than carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. These gases are the result of activities involved in running a livestock operation but are also produced by the animals’ digestive functions. New Zealand is the first country to propose a tax on farmers for the greenhouse gases produced from cow belching.

While harmful greenhouse gases are one argument in favor of growing meat in a lab, so is the land mass the livestock industry occupies. Beef cattle alone take up 60 percent of the world’s agricultural space. This includes grazing area and land used to grow feed.

At the Dubai Future forum in 2022, technology futurist Jamie Metzle said the agricultural industry cannot continue at its current pace. “If we continue as we are now, we’re going to need 70 percent more arable land. We do not have that amount and a lot of arable land is becoming less arable because of climate change,” he said.

Though lab-grown meat will solve some of the world’s environmental problems, the industry has its challenges.

There is the energy required to produce cultured meat to consider. A 2023 Nature article reports lab-grown meat requires 60 percent more energy per kilogram to produce than current beef production methods. However, renewable resources might reduce the required energy. “The carbon footprint (production) of cultured meat could be smaller than that of conventional meat,” the Nature article reads.

Additionally, the cost is still significantly higher for consumers. It may not be hundreds of thousands of dollars like it was in 2013, but at almost U.S.$10 for a burger, it is still more expensive compared with, say, a McDonald’s burger. This is expected to reduce further as researchers tweak the production process and cultured meats become more commercialized.

The social stigma around eating something created in a lab may also deter consumers. But a 2019 study in Science Direct suggests consumers can be swayed by semantics or how the meat is marketed. According to a 2023 article in The Guardian, one of the producers approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will have its cultivated meat in supermarkets by 2028.

But twenty-five percent of the global market are halal consumers. So, can it be halal certified, or is the industry alienating a large chunk of the consumer market?

Good Meats’ website indicates that halal certification is a priority. “We are currently exploring the possibility of halal certification and will work closely with the religious authorities given that slaughter-free, cultivated meat is novel,” it reads.

The UAE in 2023 was part of a round of funding totaling U.S $105 billion in a start-up to grow lab-cultured steaks.

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