Misconceptions about clean meat

I’ve seen a lot of misinformation about clean meat (also known as cellular agriculture or ‘lab meat’) and want to try and clear some of this up. I first just want to highlight this podcast interview of Our Hen House with Christie Lagally, scientist at the Good Food Institute, which covers much of the basic science and implications of clean meat. In particular, it covers many common misconceptions, and I’ll refer back to it.

First, a definition – According to New Harvest, cellular agriculture isthe production of agricultural products from cell cultures“. It is currently produced primarily by using fetal bovine serum (from my understanding, purchased from farmers when a pregnant female cow has been slaughtered), but can in theory be produced entirely from plants, without any animal intervention whatsoever. As Christie Lagally says in the Our Hen House podcast, if clean meat is ever to replace a large percentage of traditional agriculture (animal farming), this has to be the case. It is simply not feasible to mass produce clean meat using fetal bovine serum.

Yes, it is not ideal that we are currently using fetal bovine serum, and this is the crux of why many animal advocates oppose clean meat. But I would argue they are missing the bigger picture. For arguably a very small involvement in animal agriculture, we have the opportunity to reduce a vast amount of animal suffering. If clean meat replaces even just 1% of meat demand globally, it will have been worth it.

It is intriguing that most vegans are (admittedly sometimes without realising) ok with some participation in animal exploitation if it leads to better outcomes. For example, most car tyres are not vegan. Yet I still utilise vehicular transport. I, and many others, argue that the small amount of animal products used in this way is outweighed by the good that we do elsewhere because we are able to get around easily. You probably wouldn’t be a very good animal advocate if you had to walk everywhere. I would argue that clean meat is just another form of this argument, except with near limitless upside (it could revolutionise the food system), and it’s temporary. It’s because of this upside that I donated $60,000 AUD to the Good Food Institute last year (So perhaps you could say I’m biased? I would argue the opposite, I thought carefully about the arguments for and against and decided to donate as a result.).

This isn’t to say that I don’t think there are some potential downsides to clean meat. I do wonder if the looming possibility of commercially available clean meat might cause some near-veg*ns to not make the transition, because they figure they can hold out for clean meat. I’ve never seen an analysis of this, but it certainly seems plausible.

This brings me to an engagement I had via email with Trisha Roberts, host of the Vegan Trove podcast. In an online discussion about the pros and cons of clean meat, someone directed me to her podcast on the topic. If you don’t want to be biased by my summary, I suggest you listen first.

In short, I was pretty blown away. Not only was much of the material misleading, some of it was just blatantly incorrect. I sent Trisha an email addressing my concerns, so I’ll just copy that below.

Hi Vegantrove,

I just heard your two part podcast from 2016 titled ‘Clean meat’: http://www.vegantrove.com/2016/07/05/vegan-trove-0035pt1/

I thought it raised some good points, but I’d just like to point out some misleading comments.

You spoke about how GFI is a business which is publicly listed and can be bought and controlled by the likes of Monsanto. I’m unsure where you got this impression from, as GFI is a non-profit and can’t be bought.

You also made it sound like the way clean meat is produced today is the way it always will be produced. This is likely misleading, because clean meat companies recognise that the only way to get scale with this is to be able to develop the culture entirely from plants, with no animal involvement whatsoever. This is not only theoretically possible, but similar work has already been achieved.

You criticise Bruce Freidrich et al for putting money into clean meat instead of vegan advocacy, but I think this misses the point. Bruce did that because he thinks it’s a more effective way of reducing suffering than vegan advocacy. E.g. there are many people in the world who wouldn’t be convinced by veganism, but many of them might switch to clean meat. I think this issue comes down to a difference in ethical framework rather than any factual disagreement. I understand that you approach animal ethics from a deontologist/abolitionist perspective, while Freidrich and many others approach it from a consequentialist perspective. If you hold different ethical views, you will of course come up with different answers for what we ought to do.

I hope this shed some light on the material you discussed in the podcast. I also hope you will consider issuing a correction. The comments that GFI is a business are particularly damaging, and entirely false.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you want to discuss this at all.



I was particularly distressed by how she claimed GFI was a business, and went on about this at length. I have no idea where she could possibly have gotten this idea from. She also spoke at length about a possible future world where we all had a local chicken or pig or cow that we could harvest cells from and grow them in a culture whenever we wanted food. As I said above, this is unrealistic and not feasible. If people think this world really is the future of clean meat, I can see why people would reject it.

Trisha responded with a rather detailed email of her own. I’ve asked her for permission to share part or all of it here, as I think it highlights her views succinctly, but she declined, so I will briefly cover them here.

First, she didn’t address my concern about her claims that GFI is a business that could be bought out by Monsanto and used for evil. That point was either missed or ignored.

She raises a good point that even clean meat would likely be unhealthy, so why should we promote something unhealthy? This is a fair point, but human health seems to be a distraction here. By sheer scale, the primary issue at hand is the 70 odd billion land animals (plus many more marine animals) farmed for food each year. Further, why should this be any different from promoting vegan junk food to help get people across the line?

She goes on to reiterate many of her points, but does manage to find the time to criticise the work that Santos does, an energy company in Australia that is involved in hydraulic fracturing. I used to work for Santos. At first I was confused because I never mentioned Santos or fracking. I’m guessing she looked me up, saw that I used to work for Santos, and used the opportunity to criticise me for that. This is somewhat of a distraction, but I do find it amusing that she first said she had little time to respond, but had time to look me up and use my previous line of work as a talking point.

I think a very large part of the debate here is not about scientific facts, but about disagreement on the correct moral framework. It seems the case that those who reject clean meat do so because it involves animal exploitation, however small an amount, in the short term, and no amount of potential impact in the future could justify that. As a utilitarian, I think this is a fairly poor way to make ethical choices in this world, but that’s a discussion for another time.

At the very least, I would like to encourage people to keep differing ethical frameworks in mind when they discuss this issue. It rarely seems acknowledged, but if someone has a different ethical framework to you, they will almost certainly come up with a different answer to you on what we ought to do.

2 thoughts on “Misconceptions about clean meat”

  1. Michael,

    You are being disingenuous. The information on Trish’s claim about big industry was available on her site.

    Professor Yaakov Nahmias is one of the main proponants of supermeat, which aims at production of meat from an immortalised cell line, without BGH, has been promoting his product. Indiegogo has been trying to get contributions, and is currently aiming at getting $500,000. During the campaign to reach $100k, Dr Namias was asked if this would be enough. He said that the donations were not seriously intended to fund the project, they were to be used as “expressions of interest” in attracting the backing of large corporations who could fund this.

    But the most telling aspect of the Vegan Trove podcasts is the science. Cell-cultured meat is not produced from thin air. Cells need to grow, and growth is not perfectly efficient. The amount of food required to grow a kilo of tissue culture is several times that. And the food is not in the form of harvested food, it must be processed.

    Cells don’t hay. They eat the equivalent of the sugar in blood. They must also have all the nutrients needed for cellular reproduction, the amino acids (protein) vitamins, minerals, and so on. This means a relatively high-quality vegetable food must be grown and processed, the proteins and nutrients extracted, and turned into a serum that mimics blood.

    This requires a large agricultural and industrial effort. Think: if producing 100,000 kg of cellular meat requires a million kg of grain and beans, the farm, transportation, and plant to extract the nutrients is not insignificant.

    Beyond that, there is the fact that cells have no regulatory system. They will need to be supplied with the hormones, the insulin, the enzymes they may need to regulate their growth. All this must be supplied, in quantity. All this must be created, much of it through genetically engineered bacteria in large-scale biochambers, and the bacteria must also be fed.

    Cells have no immune system, and an environment that is ideal for the growth of cells, is ideal for the growth of bacteria and fungus, and any pathogen, like virus, that can use the cells. So tissue culture requires antibiotics, antifungals, antivirals in the medium, the food, you are feeding the cells. That’s added to any pesticide and herbicide residues from the food production.

    It all must be put together and run in a bioreactor, a highly regulated environment with pumps, aerators, filters, heaters, monitoring and control equipment.

    As a trial, a university can produce a hamburger. At scale, we’re talking a major industrial process, equivalent to the production of human insulin, but far more complex.

    The people who would be best equipped to take on such a challenge are the large pharmacuetical firms that already do a lot of the genetically engineered hormones. That’s who Nahmais is aiming his spiel at.

    Why are they interested? Nahmas, and Mark Post of the Netherlands, the scientist clean meat refer to, are essentially medical researchers interested in growing human organs and so on for medical purposes. This is where the research into tissue culture comes from, and clean meat is a great avenue for research that can feed back into medical applications. Neither Nahmias or Post are vegetarian.

    On top of this, what comes from tissue culture may be made equivalent to ground meat, (mince, or hamburger meat). Even that takes work. It will never replace “traditional” meat, like spare-ribs, steak, drumsticks, etc.

    The creation of a highly processed, resource intensive minced meat product with residues of various biocides from production will never compete with “real meat”. All it will do is maintain the notion that meat is a desirable food product, and perfectly ethical.

    1. Thanks for your detailed response, Dhanu. I think it is premature to say with confidence that clean meat will never compete with ‘real meat’. This industry is very early stage.

      You speak a lot about the resource use associated with the industry. However, clean meat at scale would be significantly more efficient than traditional meat. If there are people who are unwilling to switch to a vegan lifestyle, we should at least give them an option with vastly less suffering and environmental damage.

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