The Meat Industry Is Polluting the Planet. Bug Burgers Could Save It.

Lab-grown insect meat could be the protein source of the future.

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Agriculture in the 21st century is not as simple as it once was. With a population seven billion strong, a climate in crisis, and sustainability in farming practices on everyone's radar, figuring out how to feed the masses without destroying the Earth is a pressing concern.

Tufts scientists argue that insect cells may be better suited to lab-created meat protein than traditional farm animal cells.

In addition to low-emission cows and drone pollinators, there's a promising new solution on the table. How does "lab-grown insect meat" grab you?

Writing in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, researchers at Tufts University say insects that are fed plants and genetically modified for maximum growth, nutrition, and flavor could be the best, greenest alternative to our current livestock farming practices. This lab-grown protein source could produce high volume, nutritious food without the massive resources required for traditional animal agriculture.

"Due to the environmental, public health, and animal welfare concerns associated with our current livestock system, it is vital to develop more sustainable food production methods," says lead author Natalie Rubio. Could insect meat be the key?

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New sustainable food production includes what's called "cellular agriculture," an emerging industry and field of study in which meat and dairy are produced via cells in a lab instead of whole animals. So far, scientists have primarily focused on bovine, porcine, and avian cells to create this "cultured meat."

But the Tufts scientists argue that insect cells may be better suited to lab-created meat protein than traditional farm animal cells.

"Compared to cultured mammalian, avian, and other vertebrate cells, insect cell cultures require fewer resources and less energy-intensive environmental control, as they have lower glucose requirements and can thrive in a wider range of temperature, pH, oxygen, and osmolarity conditions," reports Rubio.

"Alterations necessary for large-scale production are also simpler to achieve with insect cells, which are currently used for biomanufacturing of insecticides, drugs, and vaccines," she adds.

They still have some details to hash out, however, including how to make cultured insect meat more like the steak and chicken we're all familiar with.

"Despite this immense potential, cultured insect meat isn't ready for consumption," says Rubio. "Research is ongoing to master two key processes: controlling development of insect cells into muscle and fat, and combining these in 3D cultures with a meat-like texture." They are currently experimenting with mushroom-derived fiber to tackle the latter.

People would still be able to eat meat—it would just come from a different source.

Open Questions

As the report points out, one thing that makes cellular agriculture an attractive alternative to high-density animal farming is that it doesn't require consumers to change their behaviors. People would still be able to eat meat—it would just come from a different source.

But the big question remains: How will lab-grown insect meat taste? Will the buggers really taste as good as burgers?

And, of course, there's the "ew" factor. Meat alternatives have proven to work for some people—Tofurky is still in business, after all—but it may be a hard sell to get the masses to jump on board with eating bugs. Consuming creepy crawlies sounds simply unpalatable to many, and the term "lab-grown, cellular insect meat" doesn't help much. Perhaps an entirely new nomenclature is in order.

Another question is whether or not folks will trust such scientifically-created food. People already use the term "frankenfood" to refer to genetic modification -- even though the vast majority of the corn and soybeans planted in the U.S. today are genetically engineered, and other major crops with GM varieties include potatoes, apples, squash, and papayas. Still, combining GM technology with eating insects may be a hard sell.

However, we're all going to have to get used to trying new things if we want to leave a habitable home for our children. If a lab-grown bug burger can save the planet, maybe it's worth a shot.

Annie Reneau
Annie is a writer, wife, and mother of three with a penchant for coffee, wanderlust, and practical idealism. On good days, she enjoys the beautiful struggle of maintaining a well-balanced life. On bad days, she binges on chocolate and dreams of traveling the world alone.
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Kidney transplant patient Robert Waddell, center, with his wife and children after being off immunosuppresants; photo aken last summer in Perdido Key, FL. Left to right: Christian, Bailey, Rob, Karen (wife), Robby and Casey.

Photo courtesy Rob Waddell

Rob Waddell dreaded getting a kidney transplant. He suffers from a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease that causes the uncontrolled growth of cysts that gradually choke off kidney function. The inherited defect has haunted his family for generations, killing his great grandmother, grandmother, and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles.

But he saw how difficult it was for his mother and sister, who also suffer from this condition, to live with the side effects of the drugs they needed to take to prevent organ rejection, which can cause diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, and even kidney failure because of their toxicity. Many of his relatives followed the same course, says Waddell: "They were all on dialysis, then a transplant and ended up usually dying from cancers caused by the medications."

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Linda Marsa
Linda Marsa is a contributing editor at Discover, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves (Rodale, 2013), which the New York Times called “gripping to read.” Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing, and she has written for numerous publications, including Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Nautilus, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Pacific Standard and Aeon.

The White House in Washington, D.C.


This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

We invited Nobel Prize, National Medal of Science, and Breakthrough Prize Laureates working in America to offer advice to the next President on how to prioritize science and medicine in the next four years. Almost universally, these 28 letters underscore the importance of government support for basic or fundamental research to fuel long-term solutions to challenges like infectious diseases, climate change, and environmental preservation.

Many of these scientists are immigrants to the United States and emphasize how they moved to this country for its educational and scientific opportunities, which recently have been threatened by changes in visa policies for students and researchers from overseas. Many respondents emphasize the importance of training opportunities for scientists from diverse backgrounds to ensure that America can continue to have one of the strongest, most creative scientific workforces in the world.

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Aaron F. Mertz
Aaron F. Mertz, Ph.D., is a biophysicist, science advocate, and the founding Director of the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, launched in 2019 to help foster a diverse scientific workforce whose contributions extend beyond the laboratory and to generate greater public appreciation for science as a vital tool to address global challenges. He completed postdoctoral training in cell biology at Rockefeller University, a doctorate in physics at Yale University, a master’s degree in the history of science at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s degree in physics at Washington University in St. Louis.