Lab-Grown Meat Is Coming to Win Over All You Haters
The meat industry is famously horrible. Conscious animals contribute to climate change and pollute water—increasingly with antibiotic-resistant bugs—and industrial slaughter could qualify as torture. Plus, there’s the fecal soup.
But meat remains delicious. Yeah, meat substitutes exist, but what guilt-ridden omnivores really want is exactly what they enjoy now, without all the downsides. The answer, hopefully, is lab-grown meat, built from cell samples that grow into the same tissue you chow down on. (Lab-grown leather also exists, by the way, and it’s made through a similar process.) Problem is, it doesn’t taste quite right quite yet—plus, a lab burger costs $330,000. Fix those problems though, and lab-grown meat is poised to replace one of the largest industries in the United States.
But cultured meat, as it’s also called, is never going to catch on if the public isn’t interested—and it’s hard to know if they are. Public opinion of lab-grown meat has hardly been studied. Back in 2013, before the first lab burger was eaten, only 13 percent of 180 Belgians knew what lab-grown meat was. More than half had never heard of it. On the other side of the Atlantic, a 2014 Pew poll found that only 20 percent of Americans would be willing to try cultured meat. And while you might expect vegetarians to get on board, the Belgian study found that vegetarians (or at least the 70 they asked) more often expected lab-grown meat to be unhealthy than non-vegetarians, and they generally viewed it more unfavorably.
The tides could change, though. After the Belgian researchers explained how the meat is made, most respondents said they might be willing to try some. Tack on education about the environmental benefits, and the number of people definitely willing to try it nearly doubled.
Unfortunately, larger surveys are very sparse, and research is effectively nonexistent. An informal poll by the blog The Vegan Scholar found that lab-grown meat was much more palatable to vegetarians than to vegans, whose adversity stemmed from the fact that, lab- or cow-grown, the meat still has animal cells. Some Reddit and SurveyMonkey polls have come to similar conclusions. Then again, none of these polls were peer-reviewed.
But researchers have suggested that the media vastly overestimates the importance of vegetarian and vegan opinions on lab-grown meat. It will succeed or fail on the backs—or in the mouths—of meat eaters. And they won’t have a compelling reason to switch (horrific meat industry practices notwithstanding) until costs come way down. There’s no reason to have a petri-dish burger when a farm-fed one is thousands of times less expensive.
Scientists involved are optimistic that they can get costs down and tastes right by about 2020, largely by increasing efficiency and producing meat in bulk. Here’s to a future of steaks, burgers, and sausages—without the side of guilt.