Lab-grown meat is on the rise. It’s time to start asking tough questions

‘No-kill’ meals offer environmental and ethical benefits. They could also give a few companies control over what we eat

The salad looks relatively normal: fried chicken, leafy greens, red cabbage, slices of mandarin, a mango-sesame dressing on the side. But this is no ordinary salad. Getting hold of this particular lunchbox involved staking out a hotel lobby and quick fingers on a delivery app. The prize? Not tickets to a K-pop concert, but one of the world’s first servings of cell-cultured meat.

Our modest serving has been breaded and fried and tastes like a diced chicken schnitzel. With some poking and prodding, the nugget reveals none of the long muscle fibers you would expect to find in a chicken breast. This is perhaps responsible for a slight hint of rubber-ball bounciness, but overall the texture is impressively avian. We’d eat it again.

We have pescatarians, vegans, flexitarians, locavores and of course vegetarians. But what’s the word for those of us who make the choice to eat meat not raised on a farm or slaughtered in an abattoir, but grown in a lab? Perhaps the “cytovore”, consumer of cells.

It sounds like science fiction, but it’s not. In Singapore, the US company Eat Just gained approval to sell its nuggets of lab-grown chicken to consumers in December 2020. Under the brand name “Good Meat”, Eat Just rolled out its first products at an exclusive social club. Diners sample a bao with sesame chicken and pickled cucumber and a maple waffle served with chicken nuggets.

In April, Eat Just partnered with another restaurant to begin introducing its chicken to a wider public via a delivery service. As well as the Asian chicken salad, the Cantonese restaurant is also selling their novel meat in the form of chicken dumpling and chicken fried rice. Demand has already been high – just a few minutes after appearing online, the eight servings for the day were sold out.

Cultured meat has made strides in the last few years, but production remains small. Although the science of tissue culture has been around for more than half a century, growing sufficient flesh to make an edible product at a competitive price has been the major challenge. Good Meat’s meals are priced at 23 Singapore dollars (about US$17) – certainly not a cheap portion.

The company is actively working to scale up supply and bring down costs, but it’s clear that challenges remain. Consumer production requires using larger quantities of expensive growth media and bioreactors adapted from the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. These look like the giant steel vats you might see on a brewery tour. The cells grown in these tanks are mixed with other food products to obtain a desirable taste and consistency. This high level of processing is certainly not likely to appeal to everyone.

Our lunch also came with a pair of 3D glasses. A QR code on the packaging led to a YouTube video that can be viewed through the glasses, serving as an introduction to Good Meat and the philosophy behind their products. In the video we see images of burning rainforests fade to happy dinner table scenes as we reduce the environmental impact of meat consumption. We see land cleared for agriculture to feed animals for human consumption, with crops that stress water supplies and use petrochemical fertilizers. We also learn how the animals themselves, especially cows, contribute to greenhouse gases.

“Tank to table” eating would sidestep some of these problems, in addition to its ethical advantages. But as the industry begins to scale up, there are other questions that need careful consideration. What resources are laboratory-made meats consuming? What is being “fed” to the bioreactors and where is this feed coming from? What sort of energy consumption is involved in keeping the reactors buzzing?

The broader economic and political effects of a substantial transition to lab-grown meat would be significant. Here the world might learn from what is already happening in Singapore. The small city-state is rapidly embracing in-vitro meat as a solution to problems of land scarcity and food security. Traditional forms of agriculture cannot meet the nation’s ambitious “30 by 30” policy goal (providing 30% of the population’s nutritional needs by 2030).

Lab-grown chicken at a media presentation in Singapore.
Lab-grown chicken at a media presentation in Singapore. Photograph: Nicholas Yeo/AFP/Getty Images

But Singapore also aims to turn lab meat into a novel industry. Beyond Eat Just, the government is providing funds for research and development for many similar companies. Officials want to provide the kind of tech ecosystem that will make the country a hub for future food. Singapore hopes to gain expertise, intellectual property and capital. The few Singaporean farmers who remain will need to reimagine themselves as entrepreneurs.

All this represents a significant opportunity. But it also raises concerns about how the industry is likely to develop. When genetically modified foods (GMFs) were introduced in the 1980s and 1990s, they caused a significant economic shift within the food industry. Through the ownership of the intellectual property in seeds, large companies such as Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, Dupont and Syngenta came to exert significantly more economic power over agriculture. Opponents of GMFs worried not only about the safety of these crops, but also about monopolistic control over the world’s food supplies. The entrepreneurial enthusiasm for lab-grown meat raises similar concerns. If Eat Just or other lab-based meat companies end up providing a significant proportion of our protein, their technologies will become increasingly critical to the world’s food supplies. This means more control over what we eat and what we pay for it.

Anti-GMF activists have also worried about the effects on the diversity of our food. India is home to hundreds of varieties of “brinjal” and long resisted Monsanto’s GM eggplant, concerned that it would outcompete local varieties, leading to an impoverishment of diet and dishes. The meat we currently eat is similarly diverse – depending on where you live, you might dine on anything from frogs to buffalo, from snails to chickens and cows. We also variously eat feet, necks, intestines, tails, blood, uteruses, and so on. Will all these be produced in a lab too? Or will technological limitations and economies of scale ensure that we only get chicken nuggets? Singapore is rightly proud of its diverse food culture. What will happen to all of our favourite dishes (like the local kway chap) that require the “other” parts of animals?

In the long run, perhaps the ethical and environmental benefits will outweigh these social costs of lab meat. But now is also the right time to make sure that the industry develops in ways that don’t result in monopoly ownership of the food supply or the flattening of food culture. The investments that the Singapore government is making should result not only in more private ownership but in a “commons” of new food technologies, where some resources are publicly owned and communities have a role in governing and managing them. These investments should also be used to ensure as much diversity as possible in lab-grown products.

We need a lab meat that serves public as well as private interests. These are the stakes of becoming a cytovore.

  • Hallam Stevens is an associate professor of history in the school of humanities at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Yvonne Ruperti is a lecturing instructor in baking and pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America’s Singapore campus

Hallam Stevens and Yvonne Ruperti

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