I have been following the technology behind lab-grown meat since I first saw an introductory article about it in The New Scientist as a teenager. In a nutshell, cultured meat is a form of cellular agriculture, producing meat from cell culture rather than by traditional livestock methods. The first step in growing cultured meat is to isolate animal cells that have a rapid rate of proliferation. While stem cells can be used for this, myoblasts are often favoured as they have already differentiated sufficiently and their proliferation rate, while lower, is high enough to be useful. These cells are placed in an appropriate growth medium and grown on a scaffold to promote a three dimensional structure. A team of four scientists from the Netherlands headed by Mark Post created the world’s first burger made from cultured meat in 2013 from muscle strips derived from the “satellite” stem cells found naturally in bovine muscle. While initial development of a lab method seems complicated, a great benefit of this technology lies in its potential scalability. Post has stated that using this cell type “we can theoretically produce 10 metric tonnes of meat from one biopsy”. The implications of this are obvious. Growing meat in the lab on a commercial scale could prevent a miserable existence for a huge amount of livestock and tackle global food shortages while also greatly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The burger was sampled by food critics in at a news conference in London who, after initial trepidation, gave comments such as “there is quite some intense taste” and “the consistency is perfect. This is meat to me”. (More details in this BBC article. Additionally, a video of the tasting event can be found here).
Despite initial hype around cultured meat, it is yet to become commercially available. This article by Siegrist et al. from the journal ‘Meat Science’ explores one reason for the stunted progress: a lack of consumer acceptance for the product. While there are many interesting things to discuss in the realm of lab-grown meat, I wanted to focus on this paper to determine where some of the backlash towards this technology comes from.
The aim of this paper is to examine acceptance of cultured meat in consumers and how this is impacted by perceived naturalness and disgust towards the product. To accomplish this, two experiments were conducted in which over 500 Swiss individuals completed online questionnaires. For all questions in both experiments, participants answered by moving a slider between two appropriate ends of an answer scale, giving a score out of 100. In the first experiment 204 individuals were randomly assigned conditions in which they were either informed about organically produced beef or cultured meat production. Participants were then asked to rate how artificial the alternative type of production was in comparison to traditional meat production and how willing they would be to try this type of meat. Importantly, descriptions of both methods concluded with statements confirming that meat produced via these methods would have the same taste as traditional meat. Participants deemed organically produced meat to be significantly more natural than cultured meat and were significantly more likely to be willing to try it. In a second experiment, 298 participants were given information on either cultured meat with a technical explanation, cultured meat with a nontechnical explanation, or conventionally produced meat. They were then asked how artificial they believed their given production method was, how disgusting they found it and what their willingness would be to both try this meat type and buy it regularly.
Below are two mediation models from the paper. Mediation models attempt to find and explain the factor that underlies a relationship between an independent and a dependent variable. In this case, the authors of the paper wanted to know if the mediating factors of perceived naturalness and disgust could explain the underlying relationship between cultured/conventional meat and willingness to eat it. If you wish to learn more about mediator analysis this web page is a useful resource.
The two diagrams above show the impact that either a non-technical (left) or technical description (right) of cultured meat had on the willingness of participants to eat it versus their willingness to eat conventional meat. Part a of both diagrams shows the total effect of experimental manipulation (whether conventional or cultured meat are asked about) on the willingness to eat the meat without the mediator variables. Part b of both shows the model with the mediator variables of perceived naturalness of the meat and evoked disgust. As you can see from these figures: with either a nontechnical or technical explanation of cultured meat, perceived naturalness of conventional or cultured meat directly, as well as indirectly via evoked disgust, affected the willingness of participants to eat it. Another important result seen in these diagrams is that a technical description of cultured meat (using terms such as ‘in vitro’ and ‘biotechnology’) resulted in worse evaluations of cultured meat versus conventional and caused participants to be less willing to eat it. This particular finding highlights how important marketing will be in improving acceptance of cultured meat.
The assumption that more ‘natural’ methods of meat production are inherently better and more ethical is an example of the naturalistic fallacy. Using this logic, as diseases are a part of nature, creating medicines to attempt to treat them would also be an unethical course of action. New innovations are a necessary part of societal development and just because a method has remained seemingly unchanged for a long period of time does not mean it ought to be that way. Additionally, without going too much into a vegetarian rant, the idea that the way in which meat is produced conventionally is ‘the way nature intended’ seems absurd and finding a viable alternative that can produce meat without killing animals is anything but disgusting. However, it seems a majority of other vegetarians may disagree with me on this. As of 26/01/2018, a poll posted on the Vegetarian Society website has the following results:
Whether lab-grown meat is unpopular with this demographic for the same reasons given in the paper is unclear. There are still many concerns and hurdles to overcome with cultured meat that I won’t get into here but I personally hope public opinion of it will improve over time and that all the initial hype and hope surrounding the technology pays off. For the meantime I’ll happily make do with Quorn and tofu.