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Could animal husbandry ever have any economic value as a space-based industry? We are already on the cusp of lab-based meat that is grown as an alternative industry, but would the practice of actually raising animals (on stations providing gravity) ever hold any economic value? Especially if the previously mentioned lab-based meat industry was widely used.

One reason I can see is purely transitory, shipping animals between worlds, but I'm more curious about answers that relate to why anyone would find economic value in raising animals for a space-based society.

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    $\begingroup$ That depends on the price of land and on the taxes on imported meat, doesn't it? If Singapore puts high excise taxes on imported meat, and given the lack of land within its borders, meat grown on Singaporean space stations may become economically attractive. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 8, 2022 at 14:13
  • $\begingroup$ What do you consider to be 'animal' husbandry? Are fish, shrimps, and insects included or not? Also, what is the level of technology? Can meat be transported planetside cheaply? Are space habitats cheap to build? How big are these habitats? $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Feb 8, 2022 at 20:21
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    $\begingroup$ Please note that we recommend waiting at least 24 hours before clicking the green "best answer" check mark. We have users around the world and human nature is to think an "answered question" needs less attention. This means you're missing out on some great insight, even if where you put the check mark doesn't change. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Feb 8, 2022 at 23:56
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    $\begingroup$ I'm holding out for Giant Space Hamsters. $\endgroup$ Feb 9, 2022 at 9:30
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    $\begingroup$ FYI: Lab based meat might never make it to consumers. $\endgroup$
    – kero
    Feb 9, 2022 at 13:15

19 Answers 19

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Don't forget the exclusivity.

Why do some people spend money on having golden toilets, sinks and taps, when more industrialized material exist? Because those are for common folks, while splurging in that kind of expense is the real deal for a wealthy person.

Growing an animal in space will be expensive, and getting a real T-bone or a real hamburger made with such meat will make them also expensive. And guess what, there will always be somebody wanting to state their exclusivity by eating real space meat, not lab grown, 3D printed thing.

Having somebody willing to pay a lot will give it economical value.

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    $\begingroup$ Yep, I think a better example for "just the exclusivity" is gold plated steak. Gold doesn't taste like anything, the texture is "meh" according to some reports and there is generally 0 reasons for it except the ego boost of eating a gold plated steak. In that regard the space-based exclusive meat would be far superior because it does provide tangible benefits over lab-grown meat $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Feb 9, 2022 at 9:09
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    $\begingroup$ Removing the gravity might make it more exclusive. The muscle-fat ratio will change dramatically with their antrophied muscles in 0-g. I don't know if it will taste better, but who cares about taste anyway. $\endgroup$
    – vinzzz001
    Feb 9, 2022 at 10:36
  • $\begingroup$ ah yeah, good ole plain simple space meat like grandma used to do. none of that artificial 3D printed stuff for me (quote from 2023) $\endgroup$
    – Manuki
    Feb 9, 2022 at 11:35
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When you speak about 'animal husbandry in space', the first thing that comes to my mind are not cows, but fish, crustacean and insects.

I do not think we can have a meaningful comparison of the costs and effort of running a bioreactor vs a fish tank. But the point stands, that a space habitat may posess a big and complicated water reservoir, and that reservoir or part of it may have a biosphere in it, and part of that biosphere may be extracted from time to time for human consumption.

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    $\begingroup$ A carefully curated selection of fish and plants could potentially even function as part of the water and air recycling systems! Being able to fish some of it out for dinner may just be a handy bonus! $\endgroup$
    – Bitsplease
    Feb 8, 2022 at 21:50
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    $\begingroup$ Filtering greywater through a combined fish/crustacean/plant farm definitely has potential for improving efficiency in the habitat, especially if it can also be used as part of the biosphere/life support and possibly even recreational space. $\endgroup$ Feb 9, 2022 at 17:03
  • $\begingroup$ Don’t forget aquaculture. If your biosphere serves to recycle grey water it will probably enrich it for further use in food production: space veggies or yeast cultures may well enjoy the fish poop. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Feb 10, 2022 at 15:26
  • $\begingroup$ "the world is your oyster" might take on a different meaning in a space habitat $\endgroup$
    – user662852
    Feb 11, 2022 at 18:56
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Animals as pets

Animals are not for food only. Some people like to have animals as pets also. People have buses, cars, motorcycles for transport, but still some people have horses. Animals are raised for pleasure also.

Animals for research

Many animals are used in research also.

Animals for medicine

Some medicines are made using animals like vaccines,

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  • $\begingroup$ Tribbles, anyone? $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Feb 9, 2022 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidR Pleasure. So much pleasure. Prrrrrr... :) $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Feb 9, 2022 at 17:35
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Yes.

Tech rate of change > societal rate of change.

Societal change away from liking meat as a food choice will take time. I expect technological advancement of feasibility of space habitats will outpace societal change.

That is technology will change and advance faster then societal change. There will be demand for animal products for food for the foreseeable future.

Medical/science research

If there is any long term or large scale medical research in space this will require stocks of research animals to be maintained. This would happen even sooner than animals for food. Additionally some science/biology experiments would require research animals.

Lab meat is likely to be energy intensive

Lab grown meat is expected to be energy intensive by at least one investigation. Such that the energy intensity of animals would be a similar range of cost. Time will tell what these numbers are.

Culture/religion/cult might insist.

Once there are O'Neil cylinders I would expect there would be at least a few societies that will insist on living an agrarian lifestyle. "Join our flock in heaven! Live the One True Path!"

Status

Eating meat has historically been a symbol of status. This will likely continue.

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  • $\begingroup$ I personally don't agree with your premise of liking meat is a function of societal change. Poultry was a luxury before the US flooded the market in the 1960s, it can just as quickly fade away (if you cut away capitalist incentives, that is, but sociologically there is no reason to expect otherwise). Humans have shorter memory than they think, and are less bound to routines and tradition than they depict. $\endgroup$
    – D. Kovács
    Feb 9, 2022 at 7:58
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    $\begingroup$ @D.Kovács Changing the desire/demand to eat meat across a society is societal change by tautology/definition. Change of supply is not a change of demand. $\endgroup$ Feb 9, 2022 at 19:07
  • $\begingroup$ Change of supply enables change of demand en masse. Luxury items won't be favored by the general public. Do you really think in case all the current subsidies would be flipped and meat would be 2-3 times more expensive as vegetarian alternatives ("faux meat"), the people wouldn't switch? Flipping the subsidies and repricing items is, however, by no means per default/automatically a societal change, currently it's a policy decision, which could induce a change, but not in society itself, just in consumer behaviour. $\endgroup$
    – D. Kovács
    Feb 10, 2022 at 6:33
  • $\begingroup$ @D.Kovács "could induce a change, but not in society itself, just in consumer behaviour" yes this is what I intended to indicate. Change of behavior does not indicate change in demand/preference. $\endgroup$ Feb 11, 2022 at 18:40
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Husbandry can improve agriculture instead of taking away from it

Some animals recapture wasted greenhouse light

Hydroculture crops like rice and seaweed are grown in water. While a lot of your light will be absorbed by the plants, a lot of it will also go into the water around your plants giving you the ability to grow an entire second ecosystem using the same space. The area around your rice in a healthy rice paddy for example will grow algae. This algae becomes food for various other organisms that will include various fish and arthropods which are both sources of meat that you basically get for free when growing water crops.

Other animals recapture waste from the actual plants you grow

While claims about cows needing 6-7kg of feed per 1kg of meat may be true, it is also very deceptive when you consider that you can get away with growing 0kg of specialized feed plants per 1kg of meat. When you grow edible plants like fruits or grains, only a small % of what you grow is fit for human consumption. The rest of the plant is still full of nutrients that you just wasted a lot of energy growing, but can not eat... however, other animals may be able to eat these parts of the plants. While animals like cows, goats, and sheep are grossly inefficient sources of meat in terms of how much food they eat to how much they produce, they can digest and live off of the biproducts of human agriculture. On Earth, we often grow specialized feed crops so we can produce more and fattier meat than we could off of just crop waste, but this is not necessary. If you assume your colonists only eat red meat a few times a month, then you can simply sustain a smaller herd completely off of agricultural waste.

These animals can also produce additional products like wool, gelatin, leather, tallow, etc. which your colonists would be able to use for things that plant matter may not necessarily be ideal for.

Some animals help you grow more plants

The issue of pollinating your plants is tricky when you leave it humans, but if you bring honey bees into the mix, then you have a perfect system that not only pollinates your plants for you, but also gives you that sweet sweet honey as a reward for your total lack of effort. Plants spend energy making nectar whether we use it or not; so, not only do bees produce an additional food source, they do it by recapturing another one of those wasted parts of the plant.

Also, non-editable plant parts often take a very long time to decompose. Thrown into a compost pile, plant matter can take anywhere from 3 months to several years to decompose enough to become a proper fertilizer. In this time, they release all of the same CO2 and Methane emissions that cows get criticized so much for, they just do it more slowly. This means for every kg of plant matter you have growing somewhere in your habitat, you have an equal mass of plant matter decomposing, waiting to be reintroduced to your agricultural system. However, by pushing your wasted plant matter through an animal's digestive system, you will have a pile of fertilizer within 1-3 days. This means you spend much less time waiting on nutrients to be recaptured to be put back into your agriculture; so, the space you would be wasting on giant composting chambers can instead contribute to space used for animal pens.

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    $\begingroup$ I had a sudden image of a juxtaposition of a high-tech space station with a goat feeding from the potted plant in the corner and chicken running underfoot. But I actually agree. And with habitat being sufficiently big, biological systems of food production and life support should offer more stability and self-sufficiency then purely technological ones. $\endgroup$
    – Cumehtar
    Feb 9, 2022 at 16:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Cumehtar haha, I had not even considered the implications of how people may chose to interact with the animals, but with the enclosures likely being small to save space, I could totally see it being someone's job and/or hobby to walk the goats around the colony for exorcise. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 9, 2022 at 16:48
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Tourism

Literally, for almost the totality of space-born humans, there is no other possibility to see an animal "live". Living in a low gravity environment they couldn't stand the gravity on the surface of a planet (even conceding that there is a suitable planet to grow animals in the star system they live in).

A zoo, full of these strange beings that once roamed the home planet of mankind would probably become one of the most renowned attractions for spacefarers!

And under a cultural point of view, growing animals could also be seen as a way for humans on distant stars to keep a link with the planet Earth

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Also question of resource use. There are many plants we don't eat in full. What will happen to leftovers? Cereals often have parts we can't digest and surely at times some would love to have some bread, cake or just rice. So what to do with the parts we can't digest? Certain animals are decent option for this. Specially with genetic engineering and further breeding.

Also dairy products is something that could use milk from animals. Unless they are synthetic or lab made.

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    $\begingroup$ It's a fair point, although the parts of cereals we can't digest can mostly be fed back as soil improver on Earth. It's also high in cellulose which is feedstock for making artificial fibres. (By the way, this was a background point in Interface by Neal Stephenson, with the lead character's grandfather getting rich in WWII by "upcycling" waste corncobs into parachute material.) But yes, rats will eat most things, and rats in turn are edible. (Now we just need a space-based CMOT Dibbler selling space-rat-onna-stick.) $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Feb 9, 2022 at 10:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham while I agree with your point that it is mostly fed back as a soil improver, animals can turn these waste products back into fertilizer way faster than decomposition, and they create a much better fertilizer than incineration does. Having animals that are able to very quickly decompose that waste can be quite helpful. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 9, 2022 at 16:27
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People on earth can (and do) buy prime Wagyu meat for 350-400$/pound .. and make smashed hamburgers from it.

Advert:


Space-Wagyu however is much more costly - and much more exclusive: it is much better in respect to meat quality, space cows grow in a absolutely controlled environment - no illict virusses roaming about. The marbeling of the meat and its taste is far superior due to cows only being affected by very low gravity. The space cows also only get the best food and drink: space-brewed beer and space-grown weat into their troughs (both being also far superior to what can be consumed on earth - enhancing the flavors even more).


Whoever is able to procure and eat this must be important and rich and ... an absolute douchebag but some will want it and some will provide it.

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    $\begingroup$ Does not microgravity lead to muscle atrophy? $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Feb 9, 2022 at 19:00
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    $\begingroup$ Grr... wasting perfectly good Wagyu on hamburgers should be a punishable offense. 10 lashes per pound, minimum. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    Feb 10, 2022 at 5:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Otkin - yep - but that is a feature. More of the meat is more tender due to less stress on it - that way you get a TBone with qualities like a tenderloin. Less muscles just means even better fat / muscle marbeling - it will simply melt on your tongue. [insert more marketing speach here] $\endgroup$ Feb 10, 2022 at 12:16
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    $\begingroup$ Does microgravity lead to less bone per meat kilogram? That's good, I guess? $\endgroup$
    – Pablo H
    Feb 11, 2022 at 0:15
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Others have covered secondary agriculture, supporting agriculture, pets and laboratory animals. But there are also many other things worth considering.

  1. pollinators, many of our crops need pollinators.

  2. detritovores, you can't just throw crop leftovers over sterile ground and get to to break down, hundreds of things take part in breaking those materials down, many animals are needed to make this process timely enough to be useful for returning nutrients.

  3. dairy and eggs which are direct animal products, eggs especially require whole animals to make.

  4. silk, wool, cashmere not to mention thousands of other products like bone black, lanolin, and oils. which need more complex structures than simple microbial mat can produce.

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Overpopulation on the ground

It is the year 1,000,000 and the human population has hit 1,000,000,000,000. The entire Earth has the population density of Singapore. This does not leave much room for crops or animals, and has driven farming as a whole into orbit. The orbital platforms are ideal for vegetation growth due to the uninterrupted sunlight. Synthetic meat is pretty popular, but there are still some orthodox religions that require eating natural meat, so some livestock is raised in orbit.

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Maybe Animals could be superintelligent or just reasonably intelligent (like humans) and could be used as intellectual slaves.

Ex: Alien society breeds humans they way we breed working horses/cattle, other aliens acquire these humans and have them do tasks at the level of complexity/intelligence a human can handle.

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Only if the cost of bringing them up is high, the cost of travel is low and you have artificial gravity.

If the cost of bringing up a ton of stuff is high(say nothing better than current chemical rocketry) but there is a very well developed infrastructure in space (the asteroid belt may be a good candidate there) and you have a cheap and efficient mode of travel once you're far enough from a planet (say a "jump" type FTL), dropping stuff grown and bred in space would be cheap compared to transporting it up from a gravity well.

Assuming large chemical reservoirs on moons(relatively cheap, and would even work using mass drivers) to provide resources like water, oxygen and such, building a large structure around a lagrange point and producing massive amounts of goods would actually be quite economical.

Seeding new planets is difficult and may contain biological, chemical and other difficulties in large-scale food production. Until the planet is deemed safe and is productive, many years may need to pass, with significant populations to support.

Cheap FTL provides the incentive to commerce and travel, drop-pods are used to bring stuff down from space.

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Absolutely - As a Byproduct of Atmosphere Control

If you build a space station for people to live in, you need to get rid of CO2 and produce O2 to keep the atmosphere breathable.

One way to do that is to build an ecosystem - plants grow, absorbing CO2 and emitting O2.

Rate of Exchange

How do you control the rate of CO2 / O2 exchange? There's probably a bunch of ways, but if you're going to the trouble of making large ecosystems, why not include grazing animals? You can very easily control the size of the herd by raising or lowering the cost of the meat, thus enabling you to control how much grass the herd eats.

Space Based Economy Stays in Space

In general, there's little incentive for trade between Earth and any space colony - getting things up out of the gravity well is just too expensive to be worthwhile. Therefore, the engine of a space based economy is producing things for us in space.

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If a space station had a limited amount of inbound freight capacity it would make a lot of sense to keep animals on board if there's enough space to manage their population sustainably.

Animals have more use than just meat.

As has already been mentioned, animals may need to be transported. But aside from that:

Wool, fur, leather, etc.

  • Sheep and alpaca wool is highly valued for many properties including insulation, textiles, and fire-retardation.
  • Bovine leather is also heavily used for purposes such as upholstery and clothing, even PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) such as leather aprons
  • Bird down and feathers also have many useful properties for decoration and insulation

Animal products for consumption other than meat

  • Whilst cattle are single-use only for meat and leather, they also produce delicious milk which humans have thousands of years of experience in transforming for short, medium, and long-term storage and consumption (pasteurised milk, yoghurt, soft cheeses, hard cheeses, dehydrated into powder, powdered protein derived from whey, etc.).
  • Many other mammals also produce milk that humans consider edible including goats, sheep, camels, and alpacas.
  • Eggs from poultry such as chickens, ostriches, emus, turkeys, etc.

Waste Conversion

  • Some animals are well suited to converting organic waste (e.g. vegetable matter from the farms) such as pigs, goats, and cows into rich fertiliser to be returned to the farms
  • Fish and other underwater creatures work together in ecosystems with water based flora as excellent water filters and also produce fertiliser. If running hydroponic farms, this can be extremely efficient when the flora and fauna are combined into one ecosystem and depending on the ratio of human to farms, it may even be appropriate for human waste to also be processed in that same ecosystem

Human assistance

Whilst humans have developed tools for many tasks, we've also invested into using animals as tools as there are many tasks they're uniquely qualified for, and are ahead of technology on such as:

  • Assisting the blind with navigation in a sight-driven environment
  • Alerting to very low parts-per-million traces in the atmosphere (scent detection for explosives, contraband, diabetic anomalies, etc)
  • Affection and a target thereof

There's no place like home

  • I don't know about anyone else, but if I lived on Earth previously, or even heard tales from those who had, I'd want to clap eyes on creatures other than humans sometimes.
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Not really viable

I personally don't think keeping livestock in space can be economically viable. The costs this would bring with are very high. Animals need moving room, they need a lot of food for what little they produce, and keeping something cooperating in space alive is already hard enough.

An animal unit, about 500 pounds worth of animal (2 cows), takes about 2 acres (4047 m2) of land to provide for. Add to that that you need to control the temperature of the room, have access to (artificial) light, refresh the air especially for methane-producing livestock, move around lots of water, and all normal animal problems, it seems less and less viable. If you are going to waste so much room on grass or other animal feed, you could likely get more money for it by turning it into a soccer field (6400m2).

Now let's say you import the food, and reserve only the minimum amount of space for your animals. This means that you will either need to produce the food on the ship or import it from a nearby planet. If you want to import it from a planet, importing the meat directly would be cheaper by weight to get into orbit.

Animals eat more than they produce in meat. From cows (7 food:1 meat) conversion to the one of fish (2 or-less-food:1 meat). While I would love a space-steak, space fish (or insects) would be the more viable option.

But maybe

While I don't know for sure, I estimate that the upfront cost for the next plan would cost more than any of the other factors in quite the long term. With that said, the best that can be done in space would likely be to have a very large spherical fish tank, surrounded by some kind of radiation/thermal shock resistant glass, that can be lit by the sun. Use the same tank to grow fast-growing seaweeds, plankton, and simple aquatic organism to try and make itself sustainable. If managed well, there would be no need for artificial lighting and additional food for the fish.

In the best-case scenario, there is a HUGE upfront cost getting all the water and equipment in place, and then you would only need to refill the water + minerals for each fish you take out. Make the maintenance systems solar-powered, and then most of the cost would lie with maintenance and removing the fish.

Things to think about:

  • The cost of getting the water up there would be enormous if it isn't imported from an asteroid or maybe a moon. Fish need about 1m3 water for each 200kg of fish.
  • Since you'll have a lot of liquid anyway, a liquid drop radiator to get rid of excess heat could be used.
  • Artificial gravity might even be forgone, instead just pressurise the water. The fish will build up muscles from swimming.
  • Maybe the sunlight bend by the spherical fish tank can be condensed onto a solar panel, to make it even more multipurpose?

All in all, I imagine it cheaper/easier to just do all this on a moon such as Europa and then use some kind of reusable launch system to throw things to a receiver spaceship.

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Alien animals that require lower than earth gravity

Regardless of whether your world has intelligent aliens, there definitely could be lifestock alien animals. Those animals might die on Earth due to the higher gravity, and thus the only way to 'mass' produce these is either on their original world and ship them (prohibitely expensive) or produce them locally in space (incredibly expensive).

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Heirloom Breeds and Intellectual Property

Even if lab-meat and lab-dairy makes up the vast majority of the meat&dairy the average spacefarer consumes, that doesn't mean that there is no economic purpose in raising those real live animals.

The genetic information that seeds those meat/dairy labs needs to come from somewhere and it is vastly easier to copy-paste working natural DNA than it is to try to writing new (functional) DNA from scratch. A small herd of animals therefore serves better as an IP wellspring rather than a walking larder.


"Oh my god! Have you tried the new 'Mozzarella di Buf-flora' from SpaceDairy? Apparently they isolated the genes for like five new compounds so now their vat-milk products taste grass-fed!"


There may need to be a little handwavium explaining why someone brought an heirloom farm to space instead of just shipping lots of small samples at a fraction of the cost... but perhaps proximity matters because the best gene-splicers mostly all work/train at a specific space-station, or maybe the big lab-meat/lab-dairy companies are all space-station based and having a nearby space-farm dodges a number of tariffs or embargoes. Or, maybe all of the above combined with the "luxury product" ideas from other StackEx answers simply allows for a small farm to break-even selling "real-meat" compared to ground-based farm while getting all the other proximity benefits to its IP clients as pure profit.

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Safety concerns for exotic or needed food

The (alien?) livestock requires an extremely adaptive & dangerous virus to sustain itself / for reproduction. No live specimen of the livestock can ever enter earth or the consequences will be dire, but the its dead remains (after some safety period) can be delivered planetside. The livestock's meat/parts, might be

  • a highly-sought luxury food (which might induce someone to steal it / bring it planetside anyways)
  • contain key components for a medical treatment which is impossible / even more expensive to produce otherwise

Inspiration: The "Descolada virus" 1 from the Ender Series 2, the virus can only be contained by specially modified nutrients, but nothing from that planet would ever be allowed to leave.

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Assuming there is demand for "real animal meat" over lab-grown (which other posts have described reasons for):

Animals are heavy

If you have a society that lives in space, and they have a high demand for meat, it would be a HUGE waste of energy to raise them on a planet, then lift them out of the planet's gravity well up to your space-based metropolis. Sure, you would need to build some large, specialized facilities for raising them, but compared to the costs of constantly lifting them off-world, it would definitely pay off in the long run.

Economic Independence

If you rely on a planet for any particular resource, you are vulnerable to economic sanctions, tariffs, and the like. If the price of meat goes up drastically due to diplomatic missteps, you will have some unhappy citizens. It's best to have some local industry to fall back on.

Gravity Tuning

You could use increases or decreases in the artificial gravity to effect the fat-to-muscle ratio of the meat. This could also be done by raising animals on different planets, but artificial gravity would give you a much higher degree of control over the process.

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