As a scientist, medical researcher, and activist, I have come to believe that cultivated meat has a vital role to play in solving the greatest moral crises of our time. My journey to becoming an advocate for cultivated meat has been a long and winding one, and it began with a simple interest in becoming a scientist.
During my college years, I was profoundly impacted by the time I spent volunteering at a hospital cancer ward and was driven to pursue biomedical sciences in order to save lives. Eventually, my medical studies led me to work as a process development and R&D scientist to discover new therapeutics for infectious diseases such as influenza and COVID-19.
As I got more involved in this work, I began to realize that inventing new drugs isn’t going to be enough to contend with the looming perils of zoonotic pandemics and antibiotic resistance. As these newer and deadlier pathogens multiply, they threaten to throw humanity into a dark age in which pandemics are frequent and children die from simple infections. Instead of simply reacting to new illnesses after they arise, we need to battle the root causes of zoonosis and antibiotic resistance so that these diseases don’t crop up in the first place.
I was surprised and horrified to learn that animal farming is one of the chief causes of these crises. The factory farms where we get the overwhelming majority of our meat and dairy are cesspools where large numbers of animals are forced into extremely small spaces and live amongst their own waste products. The result is a breeding ground for novel pathogens.
To see how scary these illnesses can be, one needs to consider “Mad Cow Disease,” a neurodegenerative illness which infected tens of thousands of cattle and killed hundreds of people in the 1990s before the outbreak was stemmed. More recently, the record-breaking spread of avian flu in the past year has led to many millions of chickens being culled to manage the disease’s spread, and has stoked fears that the disease, which can have mortality rates of up to 60%, may become transmissible among humans.
Pandemic risk looms larger in the public consciousness than antibiotic resistance in light of the past couple of years, but antibiotic resistance is just as scary. The United Nations has estimated that antibiotic-resistant bacteria could be killing over 10 million people per year by 2050. Despite this emergency, over 70-80% of antibiotics sold globally are used on farmed animals, rather than humans. This gives dangerous bacteria on animal farms bountiful opportunities to develop immunity to our best antibiotics, putting human lives at risk for the sake of corporate profits. In a world where antibiotic resistance has run rampant, many elective surgeries, cancer therapies, and other modern innovations will become too dangerous to perform. This is why Dr. Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization, has said that antibiotic resistance threatens to bring about “an end to modern medicine as we know it.”
Discussions of the public health impacts of animal farming often focus on factory farms, where the overwhelming majority of meat is produced. It’s important to note, however, that these problems are common in smaller-scale operations and even backyard farms as well. Studies have found a high prevalence of multidrug resistant E. coli in backyard chicken farms, and that backyard chicken farmers are often poorly informed about how chicken farming interacts with public health risks. This year’s avian flu outbreak is impacting backyard farms as well as larger operations, and salmonella outbreaks from backyard farms are surprisingly common.
So clearly, going from factory farms to small farms is not the ultimate or sustainable solution. Every single animal farm, small or large, is a threat to public health. In fact, scientists at the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University collected air samples from upwind and downwind of cattle feedlots. Not surprisingly, they found evidence of antibiotics, feedlot-derived bacteria, and DNA sequences that encode for antibiotic resistance downwind of the feedlots compared to upwind.
Faced with facts like these, it became clear to me that food system reform will be crucial to protecting public health in the 21st century. But what kinds of reforms would be most effective?
I spent a lot of time wrestling with this question. One solution I found was to promote plant-based diets, which have the added benefit of mitigating deadly chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. However, I was also aware that the biggest barrier to adopting plant-based diets is people’s enjoyment of meat and dairy products. Thus, plant-based messaging must be complemented with scientific efforts to develop cultivated meat that tastes like your favorite animal products without the same public health impacts.
Cultivated meat is grown from the cells of real farm animals, often obtained from a blood sample or biopsy, which are then grown into meat products that are identical to conventional meat at the molecular level. This production process is far safer than raising animals on farms, with no need for antibiotics or hormone injections. If all our meat were produced in sterile and tightly controlled cultivators rather than animal farms, there would be no opportunities for zoonotic diseases to develop. By making the switch to alternative proteins, be it plant-based, cultivated, or fermentation products, we can address the root cause of these crises rather than relying on temporary fixes.
When you think of “cultivated meat,” you probably think of burgers, chicken nuggets, and pulled pork sandwiches. But cultivated seafood is a rapidly growing industry as well. This is important not only because of the contribution of farmed fish to antibiotic resistance, but also because of a variety of problems caused by the commercial fishing industry. Fish populations worldwide are expected to collapse in the next few decades if current fishing practices continue, with dire consequences for communities that rely on subsistence fishing for their survival.
Further, the fish we eat aren’t the only ones that are threatened by overfishing. Bycatch, or the accidental capture of dolphins, turtles, and other species that can’t be sold as “food,” is very common. In addition, all sea life has to contend with plastic pollution, primarily from fishing gear, that floats around the world’s oceans and often winds being ingested by marine life. Plastic pollution also damages crucial marine habitats. Fishing harms far more animals than other forms of animal consumption because fish are much smaller than pigs or cows and thus cannot provide as many pounds of meat per animal.
There are a variety of other environmental problems associated with animal farming that cultivated meat promises to help solve. Cultivated meat has a much higher efficiency at converting plants into edible meat than any farmed animal, and also causes far less nitrogen pollution. It also has a much lower carbon footprint than conventional meat products when produced using renewable energy sources.
The facts are clear: animal consumption is a leading contributor to climate change, deforestation, world hunger, zoonotic disease, antibiotic resistance, and chronic illness. As the public grows more aware of these issues as well as animal welfare concerns, cultivated meat provides a feasible alternative for meat production that alleviates the problems while continuing to supply consumers with familiar tastes. Furthermore, cultivated meat presents a more efficient approach to sustainable food production, with fewer costs concerning animal welfare, health, and the environment.
It will be exciting to watch as the burgeoning cultivated meat industry attempts to scale up in the next decade and begins to compete with meat from slaughterhouses at grocery stores across the nation. Despite not having achieved production capacities that satisfy the existing demand, cultivated meat enterprises are experiencing rapid growth. Recently, the FDA has greenlighted UPSIDE Foods’ cultivated chicken, and more such approvals are to come. Companies are investing more into this technology each year, and they anticipate commencing larger-scale production by 2025. The precise timeframe for producing millions of metric tons is uncertain; nonetheless, the industry has made substantial progress in terms of investment and production.
To bring the promises of cultivated meat to fruition, we will need brilliant researchers, fearless advocates, and level-headed policymakers. It took me 15 years of researching environmental issues and biotechnology before I started working on the root cause, but it doesn’t have to take others this long. Our food system is costing us our own lives, as well as the lives of billions of animals. No matter what one's skills are, there are ways one can contribute.
Everyone can start by making educated choices at the individual level that help increase the demand for sustainable products. And for students or my fellow scientists, my invitation is to use your expertise and career to solve some of the world’s greatest threats by transforming the food system. This work can have an impact on a larger scale than almost anything else one could possibly do.
Dr. Faraz Harsini is a biomedical scientist who serves as the Founder and CEO of Allied Scholars for Animal Protection (ASAP), a nonprofit that empowers students to advocate effectively for the protection of both human and nonhuman animals and to pursue careers that have meaningful impact. Additionally, he is a Bioprocessing Senior Scientist at Good Food Institute, where he focuses on scientific and technological innovations aimed at scaling up the production of alternative proteins.
Dr. Harsini's educational background includes a BSc in chemical engineering with a concentration in process design and nanobiotechnology, an MSc in biotechnology and cancer research, and a PhD in biomedical sciences with a concentration in Cell Physiology and Molecular Biophysics. Before joining GFI, he worked as a Protein Expression and Process Development Scientist in the biopharmaceutical industry, concentrating on discovering novel therapeutic proteins for diseases such as Covid19, influenza, cancer, and inflammatory conditions.
With over a decade of experience addressing global environmental and health concerns, Dr. Harsini acknowledges that the root of many pressing global challenges threatening human and nonhuman animals is linked to the food system. As a result, he is committed to transforming the food system at GFI while also training and supporting students to become future leaders via ASAP.