Lab-grown meat for pets could protect the planet

Pet food can damage the planet.  One company hopes to change that by growing meat in the laboratory.

The problem

Pets eat a lot of meat.  Cats need it for good health1.  Dogs can thrive on plant-based diets (vegan border collie Bramble was one of the world’s oldest dogs2) but are often fed meat.

One study estimated that, in the United States, meat fed to cats and dogs causes 25%-30% as much environmental damage as the meat produced for people3.  That includes land, water and fossil fuel use and chemical pollution.

People can help the climate by switching to plant-based diets.  One in five Brits are already buying less meat4.  How can concerned pet guardians balance their pet’s wellbeing with wanting to protect our environment?

Image credit: StockSnap.

Bond Pets has a solution

Colorado-based startup Bond Pets wants to make pet food using lab-grown meat, which it calls clean meat.  Rich Kelleman launched Bond Pets after struggling to find high-quality, healthy pet food5.

Lab-grown meat is made by taking a few real muscle cells from an animal, such as a cow, and multiplying them in the laboratory until there are enough to eat.  It’s hoped that lab-grown meat could provide a cruelty-free and climate-friendly alternative to animal meat6.

Can lab-grown meat be cheap enough?

One of the biggest challenges that Bond Pets faces is finding a cost-effective method to grow meat.  Cost is an issue shared by companies developing lab-grown meat for humans, but there has been progress in recent years.

In 2012, I was part of the team at Maastricht University that went on to create the world’s first lab-grown beef burger.  The cost was £215,0007.  In 2017, Memphis Meats claims to have got the cost of lab-grown chicken down to under £10,000 per kg.  That’s around £1,100 for a quarter-pounder burger8.  Meanwhile, Hampton Creek plans to sell lab-grown meat in supermarkets by 2018 at an unspecified price9.

Kelleman tells me that Bond Pets is trying to find the best way to produce high quality products at a commercial scale.  Bond Pets is exploring partnerships with existing companies as well as developing its own technologies.

Spreading the word

Kelleman says that communicating the benefits of lab-grown meat is another challenge.  While he doesn’t have any data about how many pet owners would be interested in lab-grown meat, he claims that initial reactions from pet stores and social media have been “very positive”.

A survey in February this year showed that one third of US respondents would “definitely or probably” eat lab-grown meat10.  Kelleman is confident that this will translate to pet food.

Kelleman believes that being transparent about the process is key to convincing customers.  He tells me, “…while it sounds strange, there isn’t anything scary about growing and harvesting protein in a fermenter vs. a farm.  Both can yield natural, high quality foods.”

A promising approach

I think that lab-grown meat could be a good solution for animal lovers.  It would reduce the need to kill some animals to feed others and also help the environment.

However, we shouldn’t ignore the other damage that owning pets can do.  Cats kill billions of birds and small animals in the US each year11.  Many dogs suffer cruelty and neglect in the so-called puppy mills that supply many pet stores12.  These problems might get worse if eco-friendly pet food encourages more people to buy pets.

Time for a snack? Image credit: GoranBGD.

Perhaps one day it’ll be seen as wrong to keep animals captive.  After all, many animals experience complex emotions and strong family bonds13.  In the meantime, however, it makes sense to me to reduce their impact as much as possible.

What do you think?  Would you feed lab-grown meat to cats or dogs?

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  1. Cats are obligate carnivores.  Cornell University (2002), Feeding Your Cat
  2. V-Dog, Bramble the Collie’s Secrets to Living to Age 25
  3. Okin (2017), Environmental impacts of food consumption by dogs and cats
  4. The Vegan Society (2017), Vegan lifestyle winning hearts and minds across Britain, survey shows
  5. Purdy (2017), A pet-food company wants to make cell-cultured meats for dogs and cats
  6. Tuomisto (2011), Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production
  7. Ghosh (2013), World’s first lab-grown burger to be cooked and eaten
  8. $6000 per lb, according to Cosgrove (2017), Scale is the Real Barrier for Lab-Grown Meat
  9. Garfield (2017), Hampton Creek says it’s making lab-grown meat that will be in supermarkets by 2018
  10. Wilks and Phillips (2017), Attitudes to in vitro meat: A survey of potential consumers in the United States
  11. Morelle (2013), Cats killing billions of animals in the US
  12. PETA, Puppy Mills
  13. McRobbie (2017), Should we stop keeping pets? Why more and more ethicists say yes

2 Comments

  1. Hi Saura, I’m glad you liked the article 🙂 You’re right that there is a long way to go before lab-grown meat can be mass produced, whether for people or for pets. This paper estimates the energy, land and water use and greenhouse gas emissions of lab-grown meat and concludes that they could be less than for animal meat: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es200130u

    It assumes that the muscle cells are fed on nutrients that come from photosynthetic bacteria. That may or may not correspond to what companies will eventually use for commercial production. I know that one lab-grown meat project, Hampton Creek, claims to use plant-based ingredients to feed the muscle cells. I can imagine that might help with public acceptance. See their video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GgP6jo5DTM

    (As an aside, Hampton Creek are claiming not to use antibiotics, but I’m not sure how they do this – when I was doing cell culturing in the lab, we had to use antibiotics to prevent the cells from getting infected.)

    I would guess that using plants instead of photosynthetic bacteria could use more land, fertilisers and pesticides, but I don’t know for sure. However, I think that feeding grains and other human-edible plants to cells, rather than to animals, would be more efficient. Animals waste a lot of energy running around and growing parts that people don’t want to eat (e.g. bones), whereas cells don’t do that. So while it’s difficult to know what the impacts will be because the technology is not fully optimised, I do think that there’s a lot of potential.

  2. Thank you for the article, Helen. I enjoyed reading and have few thoughts of mine to share.

    I think it is still a long way to go for mass production so that environmentally and ethically both are positive benefits. Though livestock pollution can reduce, but lab grown meat can have similar carbon footprint, depending on all the pollution being caused for producing the raw materials used in the production process and also the machinery used.
    Though this thought of mine is out of only short thinking of mine.

    Thanks 🙂
    Saura

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