If you’re at all tuned into the latest prophecies coming from Silicon Valley, environmentalists, and even the corporate heavyweights in our food system, there’s no way you’ve missed out on the development of “clean meat.”
The crop of companies racing to commercialize clean meat has grown from two to eight in just a couple of years; they are all focused on eliminating the need for factory farms and slaughterhouses by simply growing meat directly from cells, outside of an animal.
Clean meat is not only the food system’s equivalent to clean energy, it’s literally cleaner, since it’s free from the bacterial contamination and its production does not involved the drugs that are used in meat production today.
One would imagine that environmental, food safety, and animal advocates would be thrilled by this news. But what’s a technological innovation without some controversy? As it turns out, there is a small contingent in the animal rights community that balks at the concept.
The one critique that seems to make any sense is concern over the use of an animal ingredient, fetal bovine serum (FBS), in some research for the development of clean meat. While the use of FBS, which is exactly what it sounds like, causes some very reasonable queasiness, the concern should not scuttle the development of this incredibly promising food innovation.
First, it is important to point out that FBS is already in the past for a few of these companies, and it’s being phased out by the rest. While it is sometimes used in very early research and development as a media supplement to support cell growth, it is not necessary and is far from ideal. Cells for clean meat development can grow with a wide variety of animal-free components, but when a company is first working to maximize cell multiplication and growth, FBS is currently the most readily available supplement to provide key cell signaling factors in the media.
Inevitably and quickly, though, companies graduate to non-animal nutrients for a variety of reasons that go beyond just the ick factor. For starters, FBS is extremely inconsistent from batch to batch, making it difficult to create consistency in the final product – which is absolutely critical in the mass production of any food.
Also, the stuff is incredibly expensive—there is no way clean meat will ever be commercially viable if FBS is used. Of course, price is tied to supply, which is another limiting factor: There isn’t enough FBS in the world to produce significant amounts of clean meat.
The fact that it cannot be used at production scale means that companies have every incentive to eliminate it as early in the R&D process as possible, because they need to optimize production around a formula that does not contain FBS.
So just to reiterate, commercial clean meat will be totally and completely FBS- and slaughter-free. Cue the sigh of relief.
Or not? Some vegans are still concerned about using FBS even at the R&D stage, and while I resonate with that concern as a 30-year vegan myself, the idea that even vegan foods are entirely cruelty-free is an illusion: As just one example, animals die by the millions in harvesting, even as farmers kill millions more “pest” animals intentionally.
Even beer and wine, products consumed by most vegans I know, are linked to industrial animal agriculture: Most brewers sell their spent grain for animal feed, and most wineries clarify their wine using a product derived from fish bladders. Similar examples are just about endless.
And just like the manure and fish blood used to fertilize organic vegan crops, FBS is a byproduct of factory farming; just like no animal is put on a factory farm so people can collect its manure, no cow is raised and slaughtered for the sole purpose of obtaining FBS.
Meat production is a massive global industry. The promise of clean meat is the total elimination factory farms and slaughterhouses – forever. The benefits to our environment, to food security, to human health, and to animals, are incalculable.
That’s why PETA – the largest animal rights group in the world – is on board. PETA founder and President Ingrid Newkirk, a funder of clean meat research for many years, explained that “The amount of suffering one can reduce by switching … it's a godsend.”
So too for anyone who cares about antibiotics use in farm animals, the climate impact of industrial agriculture, food safety, and on and on. If we want to stop the industrial farming of animals, it’s hard to imagine any technology that’s more promising or more worthy of our support.