A Skeptical Guide to Lab Grown Meat

Technical Challenges, Misplaced Optimism, and the Attempt to Build an Impossible World

The Epitome of Hype

In the past few years I’ve found myself returning to the story of the company Theranos and its spectacular collapse. While there have been any number of public swindles and corporate flameouts in recent years, from Fyre Fest to WeWork, Theranos stands out for both the audaciousness of its lies and the extent to which it convinced powerful individuals, private equity, and some of the biggest brands to believe them.

Theranos claimed to have developed novel blood testing technologies capable of diagnosing a huge range of diseases and disorders from a single drop of blood, with results in less than an hour. Further, this would be done conveniently, in a pharmacy or supermarket rather than a dedicated lab. Walgreens and Safeway go on board, investing hundreds of millions of dollars for the opportunity to get Theranos machines into their stores.

The board of Theranos included George Schultz, James Mattis, and other Washington insiders. It an ocean of venture capital, and reached an estimated worth of $9 billion. Founder Elizabeth Holmes appeared in the New Yorker and hired Errol Morris to make ads. To all appearances Theranos was not just a success, but an incandescent one, destined to rocket into the uppermost echelons of silicon valley startups.

The problem was that the claimed technology didn’t exist or didn’t work, in roughly equal measures. Employing an unsavory stew of subterfuge, intimidation, influence, and money, Theranos maintained a charade for over a decade, misleading both reporters and healthcare industry players while delivering inaccurate tests to the customers who used its services.

Yes, Theranos did collapse eventually. But think about the years prior to that: to all appearances it was hugely successful, any negative or skeptical voices silenced or drowned out by the excitement of being on the side of such a winner. Any outsider and many insiders had no clue that it was a fraud. How could a story so utterly false appear to be so true? The answer, I think, is that the no one had much incentive to be skeptical, while many people had an incentive to believe.

(If you’re interested in more about Theranos, I highly recommend the 2018 book Bad Blood, by reporter John Carryrou.)

What Theranos Tells Us About Lab Grown Meat

I think about Theranos in relation to lab grown meat not because I suspect pathological fraud. Rather, the context that enabled Theranos to get as big and persist as long as it did looks quite similar to the context in which lab grown meat exists. Theranos had such a good idea, and the profits, if it succeeded, would be so immense, that a huge array of brilliant people credulously believe it.

The developers of lab grown meat have an even better story to tell than the simplification of blood tests. By replacing animal agriculture, they say they will reverse global warming, stop animal suffering, and end deforestation. They’ll also become the dominant players in a market worth roughly a trillion dollars annually. It’s got a great hook and the promise of a giant paycheck. As a result, lab grown meat companies have received a huge amount of overwhelmingly positive press to go along with their huge amounts of venture capital.

And like blood tests, lab grown meat isn’t as absurd on its face as something like the idea of a flying car. The medical field has already developed quite sophisticated tissue culturing techniques, and the environmental and welfare costs of agriculture are real, if not quite so simplistic as the proponents of the meatless life would have you believe.

In other words, it’s easy to understand why lab grown meat has gotten such overwhelmingly positive press and why its ascendence has an aura of inevitability to it at the moment. But the facts, it turns out, contradict that feeling.

The Other Side of the Coin

It’s no coincidence that good journalism led to the unraveling of Theranos and that good journalism has laid bare some of the challenges commonly left out of the lab grown meat narrative. For what follows I am primarily using an article by Tom Philpott about the repeated failure of lab grown meat companies to meet their targets and especially this thorough piece by Joe Fessler in The Counter about the technical challenges of scaling lab grown meat. I’ll do my best to summarize the major points of the articles, but they are both well worth reading in their entirety. (As I’ve been working on this page Dave at Wrong Direction Farm has written up a nice summary of second of these.)

Philpott’s piece makes the straightforward point – and lays out in a compelling chart – that companies and research institutes have for years been making optimistic claims about when lab grown meat would hit stores. Many of these predicted dates have already passed, while many others look certain to, with no company showing signs of having a commercially viable product. Joe Fassler goes deep on the reasons why this is the case.

But the two pieces above are the rare exception. Read the news about lab grown meat day in and day out and you find a string of headlines breathlessly claiming that lab grown meat is about to disrupt the meat industry, that it will be on your plate next year, that a solution to all our woes is right around the corner. What I like so much about The Counter piece in particular is that it takes the opposite case seriously: what if lab grown meat proves to be impossible?

The Nitty Gritty

A cow is an honest beast. Give it grass, a herd, water, and clean air, and will contentedly grow and fatten. But this apparent simplicity belies an intricate biological complexity, as its four chambered stomach works to convert cellulose – indigestible even to many other herbivores – into useable calories, and then to use those calories to build bone, skin, fat, and muscle.

Lab grown meat seeks to remove the last of these from the animal and place it in the factory. The appeal is obvious. If the meat is the valuable part of the animal, why not figure out a way to produce more of it and less of the other stuff? Indeed, breeding livestock takes this into consideration, with animals selected for weight gain and even the size of particular muscles, such as loin eye area in sheep. But lab grown meat would go much further, throwing out all the extraneous, energy using tissue such as bone, brain, and skin, and only make the muscle.

But it turns out that even one tissue type, grown in isolation, has tremendous complexity. It takes a symphony of hormones, nutrients, and stimuli for muscle cells to grow properly. In the context of a cow these arrive as a matter of course; a cow’s body knows how to properly grow beef. But when muscle cells are removed from their natural context, it falls on humans to provide stimulants, amino acids, and everything else the muscle needs in the right time and quantity, to remove the waste products generated by the growing muscle tissue, and to do it all in an almost inconceivably sterile environment.

Of Biomes and Bioreactors

A cows exists in a community of plants, animals, and microbes. Even in a feedlot, an incredibly diminished environment, the cow will be with others of its kind, various insects, birds, rodents, and bacteria. In a pasture or grassland context the surrounding environment will be exponentially richer, with dozens or hundreds of plant species, flocks of birds, an unknowable number of insects, and an invisible layer of living soil rich with roots, fungi, and all the attendant creatures.

In such an environment a cow becomes an integral thread of a complex web. The manure it generates fertilizes the land, the trampling of grasses returns organic matter to the soil, and its grazing habits shift the population of plants present. But like all living things, it must also contend with the bacteria and viruses naturally present in the environment, and so it has an immune system, which does quite a good job of keeping harmful bacteria and viruses away from its growing muscles. The cow has adaptations for interacting with its environment.

Muscle cells removed from a cow have no such safeguards, which means any bacteria or virus poses them an existential threat. For meat to grow in a lab it must be kept absolutely free from contamination for the entire process. And this process, at least with current technology, requires culturing cells in a series of ever-larger vessels called bioreactors, with the possibility of contamination at every step.

The medical industry already does this to produce vaccines and certain drugs. But growing a small amount of artificial tissue which can be used to make an extremely valuable drug or treatment is a world away from growing meat at a low enough cost to compete with livestock. Growing commodity beef or chicken would require bioreactors on an unprecedented scale, tens of thousands of plants combining to produce tens of thousands of times the amount of lab grown tissue that existing bioreactors generate.

While it’s almost certain that various market efficiencies would make the production of such facilities cheaper as they proliferated, the point I find most compelling in Fessler’s article is that the level of sterilization required to culture tissue presents a hard problem, one that does not scale easily. Using a longer series of ever-larger bioreactors might present some efficiencies in terms of production cost, but it presents increasing challenges in terms of sanitation.

Even a tiny cluster of bacteria hiding in a porous weld or floating in on a speck of dust, on finding itself in a pristine, nutrient-rich environment, with only wimpy, slow-growing muscle cells for competition and no immune response to contend with will proliferate with staggering rapidity, destroying the entire batch of tissue. The larger the batch, the higher the cost of such a contamination event. It turns out that muscle cells, removed from a functional muscle in a cow, are incredibly fragile things.

Isn’t it Just Like Brewing Beer?

Advocates of lab grown meat liken it to long standing cultural practices like brewing beer or cider. These are interesting comparison points, but I don’t think they back up the idea that lab grown meat should be viewed as a similar process.

Take cider. Fresh apple juice contains sugar, which is suitable food for all sorts of bacteria. But it’s also acidic, and wild or cider type apples in particular are quite tannic, both of which inhibit bacteria. Further, apples come naturally populated with small colonies of the sorts of yeast that like to convert sugar into alcohol. If you go gather apples, smash them up, put the juice in a remotely clean vessel and try to limit how much air gets back in, you will end up with cider. It may not be great, and depending on how successful you were blocking the air it may taste more or less vinegary, but you are nearly guaranteed to end up with something drinkable.

So the whole thing requires minimal human intervention. All the pieces are there. Give the naturally occurring yeast the right environment, and they will turn fresh juice into cider. Further, as they go about converting sugar into alcohol, which they tolerate quite well, they further exclude the competition. The combination of acidity, tannins, and alcohol, coupled with a lack of sugar, create an inherently stable substance.

Beer requires a more involved process, first malting the barley, then cooking it at the proper temperatures, and then fermenting it. Because it lacks acidity, tannins, and naturally occurring yeast, wort (what the liquid that becomes beer is called prior to fermentation) on its way to becoming beer requires more careful management than apple juice does on its way to becoming cider. Over the centuries brewers have come up with ingenious ways to make sure that good yeasts get going while bad bacteria don’t. But at the end of the day, while it’s more complicated, brewing beer, like brewing cider, is all about creating the right environment for a particular yeast or groups of yeasts to flourish, and then letting them do so.

Lab grown meat, on the other hand, is something completely different. A cow muscle cell does not naturally grow in any environment other than a cow. It is not simply a matter of tweaking a few things here and there. Set a barrel of cider or a vat of beer on the right course and it will become more stable as the process progresses; unless a chunk of lab grown meat is nursed and coddled every step of the way it will fail utterly. The smallest misstep in a carefully orchestrated series of nutritional, hormonal, and mechanical interventions, or the presence of the tiniest contaminant, and the whole thing falls apart.

Maybe comparing a lab grown meat factory to a brewery will assuage some amount of public skepticism, but the processes are wildly different. I’d offer this analogy instead. If brewing is like sailing a boat, working with wind and current to reach a particular destination, making lab grown meat is like trying to paddle up a waterfall. Even if everything goes perfectly there’s a good chance it won’t work out.

A Fork in the Road

The problems lab grown meat seeks to address are real. Farming generally and industrial animal agriculture in particular do contribute to deforestation and other environmental issues. An unconscionable amount of animal suffering is tolerated in the pursuit of cheap meat. Meanwhile, with an increasing and increasingly affluent global population, the demand for meat will continue to rise for the foreseeable future.

Exactly how we manage this situation is one of the great questions of our time. The appeal of lab grown meat is that it slots nicely into our established narrative of how technological fixes go about solving such issues, with a novel, streamlined industrial process arriving just in time to avert a shortfall. But if this promise, however earnestly made, rests on a faulty premise – if affordable lab grown meat simply isn’t in the cards – then we need to start seriously pursuing alternatives.

Vegetarians and their allies propose government funding of lab grown meat, or taxing meat. Apart from the fact that such proposals are unlikely to get much traction amongst a public that overwhelmingly enjoys meat, if you believe, as I do, that meat is singularly healthy, then a tax on it would amount to further separating those wealthy enough to consume it regularly from those not.

Is it more realistic to attempt to scale up the production of humane grass fed and pastured meats, to stop feeding grain to cows, to make sure that the grain fed to chickens and pigs comes from farms that employ sound environmental practices? Is it possible to do this on a large enough scale to feed the world without further degrading the few relatively pristine environments that still exist?

I wish I could confidently answer yes to these questions. I cannot. But I do know that incrementally working towards such goals, however daunting a prospect it might be, would also incrementally improve the world. I’m not saying all research into lab grown meat should cease. If it can be produced cheaply enough and people want it, I don’t see how it’s any worse than industrially produced chicken. But it should hardly be an afterthought as we decide where to focus our hopes and our resources when it comes to building a better food system.

In Defense of Small Mindedness

Perhaps we do need true visionaries, individuals capable of seeing a better future and charting a path to it. Virtually all aspects of life, including much of the food system are increasingly global, so it seems like any substantial shift requires a deus ex machina like lab grown meat, brought to us by people ambitious enough to reach for the future with both hands. But I fear that for each true visionary there are a dozen false, with most paths they’d set us on terminating in dead ends rather than utopias.

What I do know is that for all the interconnectedness globalization has created, the actual process of growing food remains insistently local. The best path forward I can see focuses on local and regional distinctions, rather than trying to find salvation in a universal solution. In practice this would look like figuring out the best way to grow particular crops or livestock in particular areas. It would focus on soil health and air quality, not just efficiency. It would involve directly preserving wilderness, rather than hoping to rejigger economics and consumer preferences so that wilderness magically preserves itself.

I recognize the immense ambition of such a list, and I also recognize that there might be need for compromises along the way. But what I find appealing about such an approach is that, while arriving at a single global solution is somewhere between daunting and impossible, arriving at ways to improve things on a more modest scale, from a regional food network all the way down to an individual farm, is a doable task.

In short, I hope we will bet on better farming rather than lab grown meat as we seek to improve our food system.

Finally, a Word About Cows

For this post I’ve focused mainly on the theoretical practicalities and impracticalities of lab grown meat. But there’s a fundamental part of the question that can be overlooked in such a discussion: would it actually be better to raise beef outside of cows, even if we could? The premise of lab grown meat is that livestock are always bad for the land, and that raising them for food requires them to suffer so much that it would be better for them not to exist in the first place.

While I won’t go into all the details about why I find this view to be misguided – I’ve written about why I support eating meat at some length if you’re interested – but to put it briefly, I think a world with cows could be better than a world without them, that a world with farms could be better than a world without them, and that because of this we should try to figure out how to move towards that world, rather than passively waiting for a lab grown utopia to arrive in our supermarket.