The price of lab-grown meat has significantly dropped (1). In fact, the price has dropped 30,000 times in less than four years. In 2013, it cost around $325,000 to make a lab-grown burger (2). Now the cost is $11.36 or $44 a pound (3).
However, as impressive as this price drop is, lab-grown meat is still way more expensive than regular ground beef. In November 2016, in the US, the price of retail ground beef was only $3.60 a pound (4). As it stands, you could eat a lab-grown burger for $11.36 or a Big Mac for $3.57 in the US. You would be paying 3 times more for the lab-grown version. On the other hand, the lab-grown burger has a number of crucial benefits, which may easily offset its cost.
Image credit: Wikipedia
The push for sustainable meat
As previously reported at Red Planet Nutrition, lab-grown meat is far more sustainable than regular beef. Growing meat in labs would cut down on the land required to produce steaks, sausages and bacon by 99%, and reduce associated water use by 90%.
In addition, Hanna Tuomisto, an agroecologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says that producing beef in a lab could reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by over 90% (5). This is important, because animal agriculture produces more GHG emissions (14-18%) than all transport combined (13.5%; 6).
So for those who are concerned about sustainability, the current price of lab-grown meat may seem totally worth it. After all, while you may be paying three times more for that burger, you’re saving notably more than three times the amount of natural resources, such as land, water and fossil fuels.
Most people will go for the most affordable option
The problem with this argument is that most people will still go for the cheapest option, since it’s difficult to keep in mind the long-term consequences of choosing unsustainable meat over sustainable meat. If one burger costs three times less than another, but tastes exactly the same, then it immediately seems like a rip-off to go for the expensive option.
Also, not everyone will be able to afford to the lab-grown burger. Those on low incomes with families may not be able to afford the more sustainable option, whatever the long-term benefits may be. So while those in the middle or upper class who are concerned about the environment may happily pay the price of lab-grown meat, its price may still put the majority of people off.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that beef is only as cheap as it is because of the immense power and influence of animal agribusiness.
The true cost of regular meat
In economics, ‘negative externalities’ are the costs suffered by a third party as a result of a transaction between producer and consumer. In the case of meat, the negative externalities include damage to soil , air-borne pesticides, pollution to ecosystems, health risks (such as antibiotic resistance, influenza, zoonotic diseases and cancer), deforestation and climate change (7, 8, 9, 10, 11).
The meat industry imposes substantial negative externalities on society (12). David Simon, author of Meatonomics, highlights that, in the US alone, the environmental external costs of animal food production are about $37bn. But animal agribusiness does not pay for these costs. Society does. If the industry had to pay for these costs, then the true price of a Big Mac would be $12, which is slightly more expensive than its lab-grown counterpart (13).
Meat is cheap because the US government heavily subsidises meat and dairy (14). In addition, the meat industry has been successful in lobbying against both health and environmental regulations that would drive up costs (15, 16).
Reducing the price of lab-grown meat
In light of this information, the price of lab-grown meat may need to drop some more before it becomes an appealing alternative. But there are several startups competing to produce lab-grown meat and other stem cell-generated animal products (17). It is likely that Mosa Meat (which created the first lab-grown burger back in 2013) is looking for ways to reduce the price of lab-grown meat even further. And so are all the other startups, since the one that can produce it cheapest will outcompete the others. Mosa Meat hopes to have lab-grown meat in supermarkets in the next 4 years.
About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe
I’m currently a Writer at The Canary, covering issues relating to the food industry, drugs, health, well-being and nutrition. I’m also a Blogger for Inspiring Interns, where I offer careers advice for graduates. If you have a story you want me to cover, drop me a message on Twitter (@samwoolfe). You can also check out my travel blog (samreflectsontravel.com) and personal blog (www.samwoolfe.com) to read my articles on philosophy, psychology, and more opinion-related content.