Lab-Grown Food: The Future of Sustainable Food Systems?
Over the past couple of years, there has been no shortage of discussion surrounding the meat-based vs. plant-based diet debate. On one side of the debate, regenerative agricultural farmers and ranchers state emphatically that animals raised on rotational pasture management offer a healthy, nutritionally dense food alternative that can regenerate soils and store vast amounts of excess atmospheric carbon in our world’s agricultural soils. On the other side of the debate, advocates for a plant-based diet point to the fact that the vast majority of the world’s meat consumption comes from energy-intensive concentrated animal feeding operations where vast acreages of fertile farmland are given over to chemical-laced grain agriculture for animal feed. Plant-based diets, the argument goes, can help to combat some of the most prevalent chronic diseases affecting humanity today while also reducing our footprint on the environment. However, in the coming years, a new player will most likely make its way into the debate. Lab-grown food is projected to see tremendous growth in the near future as the confluence of major investor funding and new technological developments allows scientists to move food production from the pasture to the petri dish or from the barn to the vat.
Current State of Lab-Grown Food Alternatives
Lab-grown food was first introduced to the public by the explosion of plant-based meats, most notably the now-infamous Impossible Burger. However, the Impossible Burger is made from soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, potato protein, methylcellulose, yeast extract, salt, gums, and water and additives, including vitamin B12, zinc, vitamin B6, thiamin (B1), and niacin. While assembled in a lab, many of these primary ingredients are grown by the same combination of sun, soil, and rain, which has been feeding human communities for thousands of years.
Recent developments in “bio-engineered” meat, on the other hand, are attempting to fundamentally change how food is procured. Around 10,000 years ago, our Neolithic ancestors began perhaps the greatest civilizational transformation by moving from a hunter and gatherer to a farming civilization. Though it may sound like a science fiction future, a widespread transition to lab-grown food would entail a similar civilizational shift, fundamentally changing humanity’s relationship to the natural world. If that sounds exaggerated, one of the leading lab-grown food startups affirms unequivocally: “It’s time to usher in a new era of sustainable food production and a limitless future of possibilities, liberating the planet of the burdens of agriculture.”
To dispel notions that lab-grown meat might only develop in our grandchildren’s lifetimes, the country of Singapore has already approved for sale a cell-based meat product made in a laboratory by the U.S. company Eat Just. This lab-grown meat was produced by artificially reproducing the stem cells from a chicken feather in a nutrient-dense liquid. The resulting chicken nuggets might taste somewhat like their fast-food competitors, but the meat-containing fat and muscle came from a bioreactor, not a live chicken.
The precedent set by Singapore is also bolstered by an enormous influx of investor money into other lab-grown food companies. According to an article published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), one of the largest supporters of lab-grown meat, “Eat Just counts Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing and Singapore state investor Temasek among its backers. It has raised more than $300 million since its inception… and is valued at roughly $1.2 billion. Globally more than two dozen firms are testing lab-grown fish, beef, and chicken, hoping to break into an unproven segment of the alternative meat market, which Barclays estimates could be worth $140 billion by 2029.”
Furthermore, The University of California recently received a $3.55 million grant from The National Science Foundation for cell-based, lab-grown meat research. This funding provided by the United States-based independent federal agency is the first U.S. government investment in the cell-based meat sector. Altogether, at least $1.5 billion was raised by companies who work in the “alternative protein” market, most of that being either for plant-based or lab-based meat products.
Lab-grown food, however, isn’t just confined to the meat industry. Perhaps even more ground-breaking is the fact that several companies are unveiling technologies that could allow almost all of our main foods to be grown in laboratory vats instead of farm acreage. Solar Foods is a Finnish-based company that has pioneered a technology that uses a bioreactor to manufacture a flour-like substance intended to act as a protein-rich food-like alternative. The bioreactor uses hydrogen extracted from water as its energy source in a process known as “precision fermentation.” Their website claims to have created “a revolutionary way to produce a natural protein with just electricity and air. An entirely new kind of food that is natural, can taste like anything, and unlike any other food, not limited to the availability of land or the use of animals, agriculture, and aquaculture.”
Furthermore, just last month, the U.K. startup Better Dairy raised over $2 million to continue developing their technology using precision fermentation to remove animals from the food chain, creating dairy products that are molecularly identical to traditional dairy products but without involving a cow, pasture, or a farmer. Rather, the precision fermentation process uses yeast to create the individual molecular constituents of milk in different vats and then blend them together to achieve the composition of milk for dairy products. And the examples go on and on.
George Monbiot, a columnist for The Guardian, is perhaps one of the biggest believers in the possibilities that lab-grown food and precision fermentation offer to the future of the food on our plates. He affirms emphatically that “after 12,000 years of feeding humankind, all farming except fruit and veg production is likely to be replaced by ferming: brewing microbes through precision fermentation. This means multiplying particular micro-organisms, to produce particular products, in factories.”
Though lab coats are unlikely to completely replace overalls anytime too soon, it is evident that major money is being funneled into the continued expansion of lab-grown food. Agriculture around the world is accused of serious environmental degradation, including the loss of fertile topsoil, the contamination of entire ecosystems with chemical residues. In the United States, it is responsible for at least 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions (EPA statistics). Given the sizeable footprint of farming (and especially industrialized factory farming), people like Monbiot see lab-grown food as a way to avoid ecological collapse by cutting out the environmental cost of food production.
“The new technologies I call farmfree food create astonishing possibilities to save both people and planet. Farmfree food will allow us to hand back vast areas of land and sea to nature, permitting rewilding and carbon drawdown on a massive scale. It means an end to the exploitation of animals, an end to most deforestation, a massive reduction in the use of pesticides and fertiliser, the end of trawlers and longliners. It’s our best hope of stopping what some have called the “sixth great extinction,” but I prefer to call the great extermination. And, if it’s done right, it means cheap and abundant food for everyone.”
So should we all jump on the precision fermentation bandwagon? What are some of the potential benefits and drawbacks that need to be carefully brought into the public debate as precision fermentation continues its encroachment into the world of food production?
The Case For Lab-Grown Food
Many of the arguments in defense of lab-grown food stem from its supposed ability to limit the environmental degradation associated with regular food-producing practices. According to its proponents, new lab-grown food technologies can grow enough food to feed the world’s growing population without pushing the agricultural frontier further onto the few remaining wild areas on Earth. Consider the following arguments:
• Monbiot says that a global shift to lab-grown food could drastically reduce the amount of land needed to grow the food we need to subsist, reducing the percentage of the planet’s surface dedicated to food production from 40 percent today to 0.001 percent in the future. By taking more land out of food production, we can subsequently allow natural landscapes to regenerate, rewild, and thus hopefully capture the excess greenhouse gasses that industrial civilization has sent up into the atmosphere.
• Solar Foods claims that their precision fermenting process, which feeds microbes with air and electricity, is twenty times more efficient than photosynthesis and 200 times more efficient than meat production. “Unlike conventional protein production, it takes just a fraction of water, from the air, to produce 1kg of Solein (their lab-produced protein alternative),” they claim. The “efficiency argument” has long been a point of contention in the plant-based and meat-based debate. By shifting food production into a laboratory, major gains in the efficiency of food production are supposedly expected.
• Lab-Grown food may also be cheaper than soil-grown food in the short term. According to research done by the think tank, RethinkX precision fermentation protein may be at least ten times cheaper than animal protein by 2035. Lab-grown food, the report states, will “replace an extravagantly inefficient system that requires enormous quantities of inputs and produces huge amounts of waste with one that is precise, targeted, and tractable.” The ReThinkX research expects to see a major economic collapse of the animal agriculture industries within the coming two decades.
• Monbiot and other proponents of lab-grown meat also affirm that lab-grown food will be healthier than traditionally grown food. This argument rests on the fact that lab-grown meat and other bio-engineered foods will be able to cut out reliance on animal antibiotics, growth hormones, cancer-causing pesticides and herbicides, and other chemical residues that are unfortunately so present in the industrialized food system characteristic of today’s world. However, a recent review on the state of lab-grown meat published by Frontiers in Nutrition finds that “with this high level of cell multiplication, some dysregulation is likely as happens in cancer cells. Likewise, the control of its nutritional composition is still unclear, especially for micronutrients and iron.” At the very least, the supposed nutritional advantages of lab-grown food require much further research.
The Case Against Lab-Grown Food
The industrial food production model that dominates world food production is certainly responsible for an enormous amount of water wastage, the destruction of pristine rainforests and other natural ecosystems, carbon emissions, and the loss of our precious topsoil. At the same time, climate breakdown, the loss of soil fertility, dwindling phosphate supplies, and a drop in important pollinator insect populations are just a few of the modern-day risks that make traditional agriculture a risky bet to help us meet the increased food needs of the future. In terms of our health, the ballooning obesity, diabetes, and chronic heart disease rates are also intimately tied to the food we produce.
If scientists are on the verge of producing cheap, healthy, safe food alternatives from vats that free up billions of acres of land for nature to regenerate, what are the drawbacks? Why wouldn’t we all embrace the opportunity to create food from factories and laboratories instead of from farms and land?
Let’s turn our attention now to a few of the arguments against lab-grown food:
The Myopic Calculations on Efficiency
When lab-based food companies and others claim massive efficiency improvements over traditionally grown food, what exactly does that entail, and what does that calculation take into account? Is it possible for laboratory-grown food to “out-compete” photosynthesis, which has allowed the vast diversity of life to flourish on this planet? Though an exact description of these efficiency statistics is hard to find, we imagine that the calculation of efficiency is based on the fact that only a small part of any crop is consumed by humans. In contrast, food grown by lab technicians in massive vats can virtually ensure that all of the “food” produced is edible/usable by humans with minimum sources of waste or excess.
This type of number-crunching exhibits an unfortunate inability to understand the cycles of nature and fertility upon which many small farmers are intimately dependent. Recent research estimates that farms under 2 hectares in size produce between 28 and 31 percent of total crop production and over one-third of total food supply on under a quarter of the gross agricultural area worldwide despite the growth of massive factory farms and industrialized farming methods.
On many small-scale farms, and especially amongst traditional peasant and indigenous forms of agriculture, the non-edible parts of a plant are just as important for the agroecological maintenance of the land or territory. Crop residues are recycled back onto the soil in the form of mulch, and green manures are incorporated into soils as ways to feed the microbial life upon which soil fertility depends. In tropical regions, the biodiversity of forest gardens ensures food production that depends on perennial tree species in multi-strata agroforestry systems. In livestock farming, rotating large herds over grasslands mimics the natural processes of large herbivores co-evolved with the prairie ecosystem, one of the largest known terrestrial carbon sinks.
These cycles of nature may not compete with lab-grown food if the competition is reduced to pure numerical efficiency in terms of food production. However, the natural world isn’t just concerned with food production but also with maintaining soil fertility, ensuring bio-diverse habitats, protecting watersheds, and other ecosystem services. The competence of millions of small farmers around the world to adapt their traditional agricultural practices to the cycles of nature has allowed for the continued fertility of farmland while also producing an enormous amount of food.
The Need for a More Honest Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of Lab-Grown Food
Another critique of the promise of lab-grown food is that very few of its proponents offer an honest and transparent account of the total life cycle assessment of the food products they are planning to produce. A life cycle assessment (LCA) is a tool for analyzing the environmental impacts and resources used throughout a product’s life, from raw materials extraction to production and extending through product use and disposal.
While the end product (lab-grown food) will be grown in small laboratories, the materials required for this type of production obviously come from somewhere. In the case of precision fermentation, the assortment of minerals used to feed the manufactured bacteria will need to be assembled chemically instead of being provided by nature’s natural processes.
Furthermore, the process of creating bacteria, yeasts, proteins, and carbs in laboratories requires a huge investment in infrastructure and other resources. Brewing tanks, bioreactors, huge laboratory buildings, blue water which is sourced, pumped, and transported from surface or groundwater resources, and an enormous expenditure of non-intermittent energy will all be required. The embodied energy footprint of these raw materials and energy expenditures are scarcely mentioned by people who see the future of food in a laboratory.
Also, the massively-sized bioreactors that would be required to make “food out of thin air” (as the company Solar Foods says) and the process of splitting hydrogen from water (electrolysis) would be extremely energy-intensive. Even if lab-grown food were powered by 100 percent renewable energy, it would most likely need to be backed up by fossil fuels as they need a non-intermittent energy source to maintain constant temperatures in the bioreactors creating the food.
Though most examples of intensive, industrial crop monocultures and factory farming of animals have an enormous environmental footprint, there are certainly examples of small-scale agricultural projects that have a carbon-negative footprint. White Oaks Pastures is just one example of a regenerative farm that has scientifically demonstrated that its grazing and farming operations are carbon negative. Lab-grown meat certainly needs to be subjected to similar scrutiny via honest and transparent LCAs.
Potential Long-Term Health Issues?
Though lab-grown foods might allow scientists to add certain nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that we need to stay healthy, industrially generated and genetically modified food produced in sterile laboratory conditions will most likely face serious challenges in providing human beings with the necessary dietary constituents essential for health. Food produced in barren, nutrient-scarce soils has been shown to be incredibly nutrient deficient, especially when compared to food grown organically in healthy, fertile soils. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that food grown in vats may confront similar difficulties in creating diets that offer the balanced vitamins, minerals, and bulk fiber that humans need. Supplying these important nutritional elements as additives or supplements offers other challenges regarding sourcing and creating these ingredients. Furthermore, most nutritionists agree that vitamin supplements are less effective for health and wellbeing than a varied diet sourced from natural, whole foods.
Lastly, the impact of simplified, lab-grown foods on our gut microbiomes, immune systems, and other important health issues has been completely ignored. Is it really reasonable to assume that lab-grown food will be able to replace the natural foods that have nourished our human bodies through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution without any adverse health effects? At the very least, the precautionary principle needs to be taken seriously as lab-grown meat research continues to advance.
Concluding Remarks: The Underappreciated Issue of Proper Scale of Farming
Most of the arguments in favor of a widespread transition towards lab-grown food rest on the assumption that the industrial model of agriculture and food production is the only viable way to procure human sustenance from the soil in a way that will allow us to feed a growing population. Interestingly, the same arguments were used in the 1960s and 1970s as the “Green Revolution” fundamentally changed the way we grow our food. Small-scale peasant agriculture is almost always dismissed as a remnant of the past, too primitive and unsophisticated to help humanity address the pressing problems of the future.
As we’ve seen above, however, small-scale producers around the globe continue to produce an enormous amount of food for well over one-third of the population. If you factor in medium-sized producers and smaller farms in the “developed” nations, non-industrialized (or minimally industrialized) agricultural practices may be responsible for feeding over half of the world’s population. Smaller farms that produce a diversity of food products generally have a much smaller environmental footprint than mechanized and industrialized mega-farms, factory farms, and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
Some of the most serious environmental problems that industrialized agricultural systems contribute to, such as topsoil erosion, air pollution, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, and climate change, are a direct product of industrializing the way food is produced. Smaller farms, along with traditional peasant and indigenous agricultural practices, focus on designing the farm as a living organism embedded in its wider ecosystem.
When Monbiot, in his January 2020 article, states that “every hectare of land used by farming is a hectare not used for wildlife and complex living systems,” he obviously is not taking into account the complex farm ecosystems of small farmers around the world that allow for natural biodiversity, increasing soil fertility, and wild animal habitat.
Of course, in industrialized countries around the world where less than one percent of the population work as farmers, bioregional food systems sustained by small, diversified farms producing in ecologically regenerative ways might seem unfeasible. Rather than advocate for a profound demographic and cultural change that reshapes how and where our food is produced, many people prefer to transfer the responsibility for the future of our food systems onto the shoulders of the vanguards of science and industry. Following this techno-optimist paradigm, it is more viable to take the sun, soil, rain, and thousands of years of agricultural practices out of the food growing equation and entrust the future of our meals to bioreactors vats and lab-grown protein.
This eco-modernist approach might make sense to an urbanized population with little appreciation or understanding of how food is produced. It may even seem like a sensible course of action in developed societies where the vast majority of food comes from the environmentally destructive practices of industrialized agriculture. As is often the case, however, finding the modesty and unpretentiousness to listen and learn from the rest of the world might be helpful.
In Asia, Latin America, Africa, and other parts of the world, thriving peasant and indigenous agriculture traditions continue to sustain and nourish local communities. Though there are certainly environmental problems related to food production in these areas, they present an alternative to both industrial agriculture and lab-grown meat. Small-scale, diversified, regenerative production practices for subsistence and bioregional commercialization can allow humanity to confront the genuine ecological catastrophes that industrial, agricultural practices create while maintaining a profound engagement with the natural world.