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Colorado ranchers share thoughts on how lab meat could impact the agriculture industry

Posted at 1:33 PM, Aug 29, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-30 14:07:06-04

COLORADO — What once was thought to be science fiction is now moving closer to our dinner plates. It’s still in the early phases, but lab-grown meat foods, like chicken nuggets, grown from animal cells are already in the works. There are now more than 150 companies working on proteins approved by regulatory agencies across the globe to sell as “cell-cultivated".

In the past year, the US Food and Drug Administration and US Department of Agriculture have approved Upside Foods and Good Meat to sell their products in the US.

Many questions are swirling on the topic of lab-grown meats, so I spoke with ranchers in Colorado for their thoughts on the potential impact on the agriculture industry.

“We provide meat for the country,” said Garrett Balsick, owner of BK Ranch in Calhan. The Balsick’s ranching tradition goes back 5 generations.

Garrett Balsick
Rancher Garrett Balsick speaks with News5's Caroline Peters on the approval of lab-grown meats by the FDA and USDA.

Balsick says his family has perfected producing beef. When I asked Garrett about how the future could look with lab-grown meat, he was rather straightforward.

“It doesn’t even make sense to me why someone would want to eat that. For us as humans to think that we can make a product better than God can is interesting,” said Balsick.

Demand for meat is expected to double by 2050, according to the USDA. With that size of growth, it’s not the competition that farmers like Garrett are worried about.

“But when they’re saying that that’s healthier, I want to show you a label of beef,” said Balsick.

Lab-grown meat also called cultivated or cell-based, is meat that is developed from animal cells and grown with the help of nutrients like amino acids, in massive bioreactors in a production facility.

The process eliminates the slaughter of animals, and it also reduces the amount of land and water needed for meat.

Studies from the National Institute of Health claim animal agriculture is a major producer of greenhouse gas emissions. That is why Upside Foods, one of the two companies recently approved to sell lab-grown chicken says their process will ease the burden of greenhouse gas emissions on our planet.

"We don't have the same level of greenhouse gas emissions and we have zero methane because animals' small cells do not produce methane. It's the industrial process that we are shortening by saying two weeks to grow meat versus two months or two years and that's where the big opportunity to decrease greenhouse gas emissions comes from. Just a shorter period of production," said Uma Valeti, Founder and CEO of Upside Foods, in an interview with C-N-N.

Meanwhile, environmental researchers continue to study if the scaled-up production of cell-based meat will leave its own footprint.

“If you say it’s healthier for the planet, come out here and I’ll give you a tour of what I’m doing to try and keep our planet healthy,” said Balsick.

Balsick tells me this is the general consensus among the ranching community in Colorado.

“The main problem that we are going to have and that we’re already talking about is the unfair marketing practices that we feel is probably coming,” said Balsick.

Cultivated chicken is already on the menu at one San Francisco restaurant.

Upside Foods says it plans to create 50,000 pounds of lab-grown meat each year.

For farmers across Colorado that I spoke with, labeling will be vital in letting consumers choose.

“If they label it as a ribeye or a beef steak or you know, chicken nuggets, that’s just not true. It needs to be labeled as a cell-cultured or a cell-based product and I think the public needs to know that. They need to know what they’re buying,” said Mike Camblin, a Colorado rancher on the Western Slope.

“I feel like people need to know the process too. They need to know what was in that vat with those cells to help make it grow,” said Kacey Green, a Colorado rancher on the Western Slope.

BK Ranch Cattle
BK Ranch in Calhan, Colorado has produced beef for five generations.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection has gone through the process to review and approve labels for the cultivated chicken products and ensures they are truthful and not misleading.

And while lab-based chicken is the first product to be approved by the USDA for sale, beef is following closely behind.

But Balsick tells me he isn’t worried that lab meat could be the future.

“We have the best product. I’m not a little bit concerned so that’s why I’m okay with competition. If I was worried that our product wasn’t superior, then yeah. But I’m not. Our product is better,” said Balsick.

Right now, Singapore and the U.S. are the only countries to approve cell-based meat for consumer consumption.

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