The Case for Lab-Grown Meat

6 minute read
Lymbery is global chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, a former United Nations Food Systems Champion, and award-winning author. His latest book, co-edited with Michel Vandenbosch, is Cultivated Meat to Secure Our Future: Hope for Animals, Food Security and the Environment, out on Oct. 24, 2023

In September 2019, the International Space Station was undertaking an extraordinary mission: to produce the first beef in space. Nearly 250 miles above the Earth and hurtling at 15,000 miles an hour, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka was pictured wearing a white T-shirt and clutching an orange box. He looked remarkably relaxed for someone in the process of doing something so groundbreaking.

A cow was conspicuously absent; instead, cells from a cow had been blasted into orbit aboard the Soyuz MS-15 space rocket. Skripochka and his colleagues mixed them with a nutrient soup and added the mixture into a 3D bioprinter. They were about to “print” the first “cultivated beef steak” ever to be produced in space

Why choose space as the venue for this groundbreaking experiment? "We are proving that cultivated meat can be produced anytime, anywhere, in any condition," said Didier Toubia, co-founder and chief executive of Aleph Farms, the Tel Aviv-based company behind the breakthrough. It was driven by a desire to produce meat in a way that held out the promise of being more climate and animal friendly.

Now, back on Earth, that promise is becoming a reality.

Whether beef, pork, or chicken, cultivated, or “lab-grown” meat is now moving from the realms of space-age fantasy to the dinner plate.

Read More: The Cow That Could Feed the Planet

In America, food history was made on June 21, 2023 when cultivated chicken—chicken grown from stem cells in a bioreactor—was officially approved for commercial sale. For the first time ever, American diners could tuck into chicken produced without harming a single bird. Instead, stem-cells harmlessly drawn from donor animals would be raised in a soup of nutrients in a bioreactor. Compared to conventional meat, meat from stem-cells promises to need much less land and emit far fewer greenhouse gases. It also tastes the same as meat from an animal, mainly because it is real meat, only not from a slaughtered animal. A triple win for people, animals, and the planet.

Regulatory approval in the U.S. means that two California companies, Upside Foods and Good Meat, can now offer “lab-grown” meat to the nation’s restaurant tables and eventually, supermarket shelves. More will surely follow. Immediately following USDA approval, Good Meat started producing its first batch  of cultivated chicken. It was destined for sale to celebrated restaurateur and humanitarian Chef José Andrés, who runs 30 restaurants across the country. This milestone came after the world’s first commercial go-ahead for cultivated chicken was given in 2020 in Singapore.

What has long been seen as the realm of science fiction has since become a multi-billion-dollar industry, researching, nurturing, even serving cultivated meat to paying customers. It is now also catching the attention of policy makers. On  Sept. 12, 2022, a positive citation was included in a U.S. Government Executive Order on advancing biotechnological innovation for a “sustainable, safe, and secure” America. This obliged the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to report on how to achieve food innovation, including through ‘cultivating alternative food sources,’ setting the stage for wider uptake of cell-based foods. And what takes off in America often quickly goes around the world.

The opportunity is vast—today’s animal-based meat industry is worth $1.4 trillion and continues to grow. As things stand, this presents a big problem because the greenhouse gas emissions from our appetite for meat alone look set to trigger catastrophic climate change.

Cultivated meat on the other hand could have a much lower environmental footprint, reducing the impact on climate, land use and air pollution. Latest predictions suggest cultivated meat could secure 10% of the meat market by 2030 and as much as 35% by 2040.

Inevitably, some ask why not just go plant-based and simply eat vegan?

Well, there is an obvious answer: here and now, most people want to eat meat. Despite the recent rise of plant-based eating, the statistical fact is that per capita meat consumption in much of the world continues to climb.  

Yes, United Nations data shows a minor reduction in beef consumption worldwide, perhaps driven by health and climate concerns. But this is more than made up by increased demand for chicken meat.

The world is reaching a tipping point where planetary emergencies around climate, the collapse of nature and rising health risks are threatening us all. Our eating habits, particularly concerning meat and dairy, are having a big bearing. To get the world back on track, scientifically based estimates suggest that the amount of meat produced from animal-rearing globally needs to reduce by more than half.

Read More: Exclusive: We Tasted The World's First Cultivated Steak, No Cows Required

In the short window of opportunity left to reduce the amount of meat from a bloated, planet-damaging livestock industry, plant-based eating may well need a helping hand. That extra push could come from something that is undisputedly “meat” but not from a slaughtered animal.

There are also health factors to consider. From a food safety standpoint, cultivated meat could become the single most important non-pharmaceutical health development of our time. Salmonella poisoning, Campylobacteriosis, and similar illnesses are caused by bugs from contaminated fecal matter. Growing stem cells in a vat would mean no intestines and no intestinal bugs, effectively removing these food safety concerns completely.

Whether for health reasons, concerns about animal cruelty, or rising anxiety over the environment, make no mistake: pressure for change will only grow in the face of the climate crisis and the collapse of nature. The only thing we can guarantee about the future is that big change is coming. Impetus for a major rethink of our relationship with meat is going to build, and quickly.

Yet, our global appetite for meat continues to increase; as it stands, we are effectively mortgaging the future without an ability to pay.

As the “renewable energy” equivalent of the food sector, cultivated meat could provide the power to charge consumer’s plates with meat, but without the downsides. Indistinguishable from animal meat, it could offer the same taste and convenience and eventually at a lower price. Cultured meat therefore presents the means to reduce our consumption of conventional meat and dairy without taking anything away.

Sitting beside nature-friendly, regenerative farming, cultivated meat could be a big part of the solution, a theme echoed by the man behind that first cultivated beef steak in space.

Before he launched those stem cells inside a rocket ship in 2019, Toubia said his company was not aiming to replace traditionally raised, grass-fed cattle: “We are not against traditional agriculture. The main issue today is with intensive, factory farming facilities, which are very inefficient and very polluting and have lost the relationship to the animal.”

That space mission was one of a kind. The technology it trialed could be transformative. We now have a once-in-history opportunity to create a sustainable future for our children. With time running out, we could look back on that space mission trialing cultivated meat as one small step for humanity, and one giant leap for life on Earth.

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