Reading Time: 6 minutes Lab-grown meat and dairy are here to stay... Credit: Adobe. Do not use without permission.
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Cellular agriculture, aka lab-grown meat and dairy, will transform animal agriculture. It shifts production away from farming animals to instead focus on processes at the cellular level.

Think tank Blue Horizon suggests that by 2035 ‘every tenth portion of meat, eggs, and dairy eaten around the globe is very likely to be alternative’.

Questions remain about the technology. Is it artificial? Will people accept it? Is it better or worse for the environment?

Some answers are becoming clearer every day. Not only in terms of the food we eat.

Yes, most ‘lab-grown’ tech companies are working to produce animal-derived agricultural products (‘meat’, ‘leather’, ‘milk’, ‘eggs’ etc.). But, there’s a whole world of innovation in other areas. 

That is good news for animals and the plant-based community. It helps make ‘lab-grown’ an acceptable idea. Let’s begin with diamonds.

Diamonds are forever?

Earlier this year, Pandora, the world’s largest jewelry company, announced that, going forward, it would only use lab-created diamonds, and not mined diamonds.

Lab-grown diamonds have been around since the 1950s. But high energy costs and a lack of ability to create ‘pretty’ diamonds meant they were mainly used in industry, such as drill bits on heavy machinery.

But as with lab-grown meat, technology has advanced and costs have come down. Now lab-grown diamonds are helping consumers avoid the environmental and ethical problems associated with the ‘natural’ product.

Human rights abuses

The charity Human Rights Watch reports that even today most jewelry companies can’t assure its customers that its diamonds are free from human rights abuses. These are particularly child labor, and punitive amputations for villagers who mine in surrounding areas and ‘steal’ company property.

For many mine workers, COVID-19 also worsened conditions and exploitation.

Lab-grown diamonds are largely better for the environment

Environmentally, lab-created diamonds still use a lot of energy. But they are up to 10 times more efficient than the fossil fuels, explosives, and heavy machinery used in diamond mines.

It is much easier to source renewable energy for lab-created diamonds. Pandora’s commitment is that they will use 100 percent renewables by 2022.

Choosing sustainability

As with plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, the switch in purchasing power is being driven by young people. They are prioritising sustainability when choosing expensive jewellery. 

Perhaps that’s why a lab-grown diamond company has become the first ‘Certified Sustainable’ and ‘Certified Climate Neutral’ diamond producer, with attention also give to water consumption, traceability, and diversity in its workforce production.

Mined diamonds can no longer be marketed as ‘natural’ in contrast with lab-created. The jewellery industry now recognises both as ‘real’ diamonds.

Lab-grown is cheaper

What is really driving change in consumer habits is cost. Lab-created diamonds are around 30 percent cheaper than mined diamonds. That means more people can purchase them for different reasons. (It’s another reason why price parity in the alternative meat and dairy sector is so important.)

That’s perfect for a company such as Pandora, which prides itself on creating affordable accessories for people. Up to 77 percent of people in Europe are aware of lab-grown diamonds.

“The roadblock to the success of this category has never been the consumer,” research company MVEye reported in 2020. “It has been the trade.”

Artificial and fake?

That is, Big Diamond companies such as DeBeers have always controlled the mines and the industry. Change is a threat to their business model. So for the last 20 years, they have spent a lot of effort labeling lab-grown diamonds as ‘artificial’ and ‘fake’. (Sound familiar?)

But the writing is on the wall. DeBeers has launched a lab-grown diamond collection for fashion jewelry. Signet, the largest US jewelry retailer, now also sells lab-ground diamonds alongside traditionally mined diamonds.

Fabric of future

There are decades of research and practice behind the emergence of lab-created diamonds. The same can be said of the fabrics used to make clothes.

Back in 2015, Erin Smith, an artist, grew a wedding dress from mycelium, the thread-like fibers that hold mushrooms together.

Now that kind of technology is reaching mass scale, as the answer to environmental and ethical problems in the fashion and textile industries.

Mycelium is the vegetative body of fungi Credit: Adobe. Do not use without permission.

Fashion ecocatastrophe

The UN has reported the fashion industry is responsible for 20 percent of global wastewater, and 10 percent of global carbon emissions. That’s more than all international flights and maritime shipping. Cotton farming uses a quarter of all insecticides.

But with production moving to the lab, these ecological issues are vastly reduced—as are the concerns surrounding hazardous working conditions.

Reshaping fashion’s footprint

The Future Tech Lab has helped establish 150 new start-ups and over 350 new lab-grown products and technologies to ‘reshape fashion’s footprint’.

For vegans and plant-based fashionistas, one of Future Tech Lab’s companies may hold the key to wearing silk again—this time, lab-grown rather than from silkworms.

Vegan silk

Fashion innovator Bolt Threads has launched a beauty company, Eighteen B, that uses bioengineered and lab-grown silk protein. It’s a key ingredient for clothes and beauty products, including moisturizers.

Bolt Threads are also the company behind an ‘unleather’ called Mylo (marketed as ‘All of the Leather; None of the Animal’) which is already being used by adidas, lululemon, and Stella McCartney.

A mushrooming industry

And there are more. MuSkin is created from the caps of mushrooms. Reishi is a fungus-grown leather that debuted at New York Fashion Week.

Piñatex is a leather alternative from pineapple leaves. Italian-based VEGEA is making leather from wine! (from its waste grape skins, seeds, and stalks.) And Modern Meadow is using collagen from yeast instead of from animals to make vegan leather. It really is a mushrooming industry (sorry!).

Lab-grown trees?

And the lab-grown plant-based revolution is not limited to food or fabrics, either. Researchers at MIT in America have grown structures of wood-like plants in their laboratories—’growing a table’ as the future of forestry and construction materials.

That’s a long way off yet, but the research is heading that way. And it may end the massive environmental impact of forestry.

Fake blood?

No, not the stuff you get in a joke shop for Halloween. The lab-grown movement is also active in human blood developments—and that’s good news for people who love animals.

As ‘lab-grown’ or ‘lab-created’ becomes more accepted in other areas, the more likely it is that society will welcome lab-grown meat and dairy products.

Human blood cells were first made ‘in vitro’ and injected back into the donor during an operation in 2011.

In 2017, human blood stem cells were grown in the lab for an NHS trial. The benefit is that, if a sick person’s blood stem cells can be grown, they don’t need to look for a match through bone marrow donation. It could save thousands of lives a year.

Bristol-based researchers in the UK have used CRISPR gene-editing technology working with the NHS to get closer to the ultimate goal of producing ‘lab-grown red blood cells’ especially for patients with rare blood requirements.

Lab-grown blood is made using gene-editing technology

Is ‘fake’ blood natural?

There ethical questions here around the ideal of ‘naturalness’. Gene-editing technology has been questioned for its potential uses in making animals in agriculture more pliant and pain-free.

Yet these developments in science are pushing further the boundaries of how lab-created or lab-grown products can reduce pain and suffering for humans. Why not for animals, too, if it means removing animals from intensive agriculture?

Dog and bone

Lab-grown technologies also have the potential to achieve the 3Rs, the holy grail of medical research campaigning: improving human health at the same time as reducing or ending animal models of experimentation and vivisection.

For example, researchers at the University of Sheffield have developed a technology using lab-grown mini-scaffolding capable of growing human tissue and bone.

It could revolutionise testing by producing ‘bone on a chip’ resources, and so reduce the need for testing on animals—perhaps, we hope, altogether.

This technology is already underway in commercial applications. In the US, this is led by Altis (creating lab-grown guts!) and in Germany by bi/ond (for organoid medical testing). 

Again, this could change the world, not least with lab-grown organs bringing an end to the transplant crisis—and sparing pigs from ‘donating’ their hearts to humans, too.

Meat the future?

But of course, where the biggest news has been in the past decade is around lab-grown alternatives to animal products.

Organizations such as the Good Food Institute are leading the way in investing in companies who create meat from plants and cultivating meat from cells.

Perhaps the biggest development in the last 12 months was the news of the first lab-grown meat to go on sale in Singapore last December.

Investment into cell-cultured meat is on the rise Credit: Adobe. Do not use without permission.

The ‘chicken bites’, produced by the US company Eat Just, passed a safety review by the Singapore Food Agency.

And just this week, Nestlé announced that it is exploring emerging technologies for cultured meat. The food giant reported that it is working with several external partners and start-ups, including Future Meat Technologies Ltd, ‘to explore the potential of cultured-meat components that do not compromise on taste or sustainability’.

This changes everything

Over time, it could change everything for animals. Daily, around 130 million chickens are slaughtered for their meat.

It’s been estimated that lab-grown meat and dairy could see the end of animal-derived food sectors, such as the American ‘beef’ industry, by 2030.

This will be driven largely by cost. According to the group Rethink X: “The cost of proteins will be five times cheaper by 2030 and 10 times cheaper by 2035 than existing animal proteins, before ultimately approaching the cost of sugar.”

And it’s not only cost. Lab-grown products will be “superior in every key attribute—more nutritious, healthier, better tasting, and more convenient, with almost unimaginable variety. By 2030, modern food products will be higher quality and cost less than half as much to produce as the animal-derived products they replace.”

End of ‘fake’ news?

There’s a lot to learn—and be hopeful for—in the lessons from these other industries.

Let’s go back to what the CEO of Pandora Alexander Lacik told Forbes. He’s talking about diamonds, but he could easily be talking about lab-grown meat.

“Diamonds have been a business that have been purely mined for centuries,” said Lacik. “Then all of a sudden, there’s an alternative. It constitutes a threat and people start dressing up arguments to deal with the threat. But it’s safe to say that lab-created diamonds are here to stay.”

Lab-grown meat and dairy are here to stay, too. It may just see the end of animal agriculture, like mined diamonds, forever.

Dr. Alex Lockwood

Alex Lockwood is a writer and senior lecturer at the University of Sunderland. He is the author of The Pig in Thin Air (Lantern Books), a vegan memoir about the relationship between climate change and the food we eat. His debut novel The Chernobyl Privileges (Roundfire) was shortlisted for the Rubery International Book Award 2019. He has written journalism, fiction and nonfiction for The Guardian, Earthlines, Zoomorphic, Like the Wind, SWAMP, The Dodo, The Millions and more. He is a regular speaker at events and various vegan festivals. Connect at http://www.twitter.com/alexlockwood.