Toying with Franken-meat

With new advancements in lab grown meats over the past few years, tucking into a piece of vegan-friendly steak might soon become a reality. But for Alvin Li, it all sounds a little too good to be true.

*This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec ‘Food & Wellness’ 2020 issue of Wine & Dine

When you hear the term vegan, you’d probably visualise passionate advocates preaching to people that going plant-based is the best decision for so many reasons. I, myself, was a vegan convert a little more than three years ago. And like many others, I was convinced that the grass was literally greener on the other side after watching a few shocking and jaw-dropping documentaries on industrialised animal farming, the negative health effects of eating meat and its impact on climate change.

But with so many positive benefits of going vegan, I never imagined that reality was so hard to swallow. Not only do you have to face social stigma from your friends, family and colleagues, but without meat, you must curb your meat cravings, while your food options are drastically limited. Gone are the days I could celebrate my mum’s birthday dinner at her favourite steakhouse, or travel to Tokyo with my friends for an omakase meal.

Then came a recent development over the past few years that piqued my interest (and slightly, my appetite): cell-based, lab-grown meat. According to The Good Food Institute, cell-based meat is a way to meet meat-eaters and plant-based vegans halfway, promising a slaughter-free, disease-free and energy-efficient way to grow and produce high quality cuts of meat. Without the need to raise and slaughter animals, cut down trees for grazing, or use antibiotics and pesticides, lab-grown meat could be the antidote to climate change and a fast-growing global population. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sold on the idea.

A 2019 survey conducted by an international group of researchers found that 61 percent of Chinese consumers were likely to try cell-based meat, and a similar percentage were likely to replace conventional meat. But to an animal welfare vegan like myself, this process still uses animals for human benefit, while perpetuating our hunger for the real thing. It is slaughter-free, but is it really cruelty-free? And since tasty and healthy plant-based substitutes already exist, why would we still need to replicate meat?

By definition, meat grown in a lab is identical to the cell samples extracted from the animal but I’m doubtful its taste, smell and texture would be identical to the real thing. While most cell-based meat labs claim they can (literally) ‘reproduce’ the same flavours, various taste tests have regurgitated mixed results: Israel’s Aleph Farms admits their US$50 beef strip still needs perfecting, and the world’s first lab-grown burger that cost US$330,000 back in 2013 was “completely plain”, as said by Hanni Rützler, one of its professional taste testers. Surely, new cultivation techniques will drastically improve its flavours and textures over time, but if I could give up the taste of meat three years ago, it would take divine deliciousness to entice me to start eating meat again.

Many vegans have gone plant-based because of the evidence-backed, negative health effects of meat consumption. A 2015 review of multiple USA and European studies concluded that consuming meat was associated with increased morality, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Would I want to put my health at risk again? It’s true that food scientists working in these labs can adjust the fat levels of the cells, or select the ‘cleanest’ part of the animal to cultivate. But I, for one, am sticking with plants – which, let’s not forget, is what the farm animals eat anyway!

Perhaps the most pressing questions revolve around its price tag. How much would lab-grown meat cost me, and how much am I really willing to pay for it? Thankfully, cell-based meat these days won’t set you back US$330,000; most contenders are producing meat at hundreds of US dollars per pound, and racing to get this down to about US$5 to US$10 before 2022. Still, this price tag is hard to digest, and these meats are likely to be marketed and sold as premium products in the near future. I might splurge a little for a lab-grown steak for a special occasion, but I’ll probably stick with plants and plant-based meat substitutes for my everyday meals.

Cell-based meat production is now beyond proof-of-concept; it’s completely viable and on a path towards exponential growth. Its next major challenge is to technologically improve its cell cultivation process and culture medium quality, scale up production globally and increase its affordability. But all of this potential growth is against the backdrop of an already successful mass adoption of plant-based meat substitutes, both in households and in restaurants. In order for ‘meat’ to make a comeback, it has to stand on its feet and put up a good fight.

I can’t deny, cell-based meat has huge potential and gives us some food for thought. I, too, long for the day a luscious piece of wagyu beef steak can be completely lab-grown. But until the day when cell-based meat production can be truly cruelty-free, environmental, tasty, healthy and affordable, I’ll stick with my plant-based options.

Because once you go plant, you can’t go back.

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Alvin Li


A social innovation consultant from Hong Kong, he regularly speaks at international conferences like the UN and WTO on responsible consumption and millennial trends. He holds two Masters degrees from Cambridge University and is currently pursuing a PhD in public policy.

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