Cultured meat: A whole different animal?
Synthetic meat grown in-vitro in a petri dish, rather than gained from slaughtered animals, has a number of advantages and could be a game-changer in combating global hunger as well as climate change. Given recent advances, cultured meat technology and cellular agriculture could be mature and market-ready within just a few years.
Humans have been eating meat for nearly two million years. In the early days of our species, we supported ourselves as scavengers and hunter-gatherers before gradually refining our skills in animal husbandry. Today, our carnivorous diet is almost entirely based on the mass-scale raising and slaughtering of livestock – by an industry that faces growing concern from the general public, politicians, and other stakeholders, for a number of reasons.
In the past decades, advances in the field of in-vitro cell cultivation have laid the groundwork for producing meat entirely in a laboratory, without the need to raise and kill animals. The product obtained through cellular agriculture – also known as “synthetic meat”, “slaughter-free meat”, or “clean meat” – should not be confused with meat substitutes such as tofu or edible insects. The technology has already been shown to be viable, though it has yet to become price-competitive with the traditional meat industry.
Is it ‘real’ meat?
In August 2013, Maastricht University researcher Mark Post presented a proof-of-concept hamburger patty grown entirely in a lab from about 20’000 strips of cultured muscle tissue, cultivated from cow stem cells. Food testers pronounced it to be “close to meat […] the consistency is perfect” and said that it tasted “like a conventional hamburger”, though slightly less juicy. However, with a price tag of €250’000, the world’s first lab burger was clearly not yet ready for the supermarket shelf. In the meantime, Prof. Post’s startup company Mosa Meat estimates that its meat products could be commercially available in some restaurants as early as 2021.
Cultured meat is produced from stem cells or myosatellite and myoblast cells that reproduce quickly in a growth medium placed in a bioreactor. The tissue can be given structure through an edible scaffold that occasionally moves and stretches to mimic the development and texture of animal muscles. The most basic product resembles mince or sausage meat; more sophisticated techniques would be required to grow complex three-dimensional structures with fatty layers such as steaks. In essence, however, lab-grown meat is biologically identical with meat from the slaughterhouse, and can be artificially colored to resemble conventional produce more closely. The process can be used to grow pork and beef as well as chicken meat and even seafood.
How the sausage is made
While avoidance of meat on religious or cultural grounds has a long history, criticism of the global meat industry based on ecological, ethical, health, and economic considerations has only really gone mainstream in the past few decades. The raising and slaughtering of animals on an industrial scale has had, and will continue to have, a huge impact on our planet and our societies, especially given the current trends in global population growth and increasing consumption of animal protein. Conversely, replacing traditional production methods with cultured meat would have revolutionary consequences in numerous fields.
From an environmental perspective, livestock farming is extremely resource-intensive. It requires disproportionate amounts of feed and water (16’000 liters of water per kg of beef). In order to create open spaces for grazing and feed-growing, large swathes of rainforest have been destroyed by slash-and-burn agriculture, further aggravating climate risks and displacing indigenous populations and wildlife. Other ecological problems arise from groundwater pollution through the disposal of livestock effluents, and from methane and logistics emissions created by the global meat industry.
Closely related to ecological factors are the health and sanitary concerns associated with livestock husbandry. Because in-vitro meat would be at a much lower risk of biological or chemical contamination, it could be grown without the vast amounts of antibiotics that are used in industrial farming and are causing serious problems with antibiotic resistance in animals and humans. Furthermore, by making high-intensity animal husbandry redundant, we would have fewer environments where humans and animals live in close proximity and thus avoid health risks and pandemics such as avian and swine flu that have caused global disruptions in the past.
Eliminating famines and abattoirs
For many consumers, ethical considerations also factor largely in their dietary choices. By growing meat in a petri dish instead of through battery farming, we could avoid some of the less appealing aspects of intensive livestock farming and end the trauma that animals experience in the abattoir, which has been shown to directly affect the quality of meat. Since all these factors are of sufficient concern for many consumers to make them avoid meat altogether, eliminating them could stimulate demand.
The ability to make essentially unlimited amounts of meat from a small number of stem cells also opens up the prospect of ending world hunger, which is to no small extent caused by an unequal global distribution of resources driven by meat consumption. “The challenge we face is how to feed humanity without destroying the planet,” says Mirko Betti, professor of Agricultural Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta, Canada. “If you want to achieve abundance without destroying the world, you need to change the technology.” He emphasizes that in-vitro meat should not only look and taste like traditional meat, but must also have a similar nutrient profile.
Given the economic significance of the food industry today, the potential consequences of access to lab-grown meat are far-reaching. “Making cellular agriculture widely available in Africa could be as transformational as cellular communication has been in those countries,” says Paul Shapiro, cultured meat advocate and author of Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World. While developing countries stand to gain the most from technological leapfrogging, making bioreactors available to every household would have a staggering economic impact around the globe, with obvious implications for retail and the traditional meat industry.
Clean meat pioneers
While synthetic meat has only recently become viable, the idea is not new. Winston Churchill was an early advocate, famously predicting in 1931 that “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium. Synthetic food will, of course, also be used in the future.” The step from hypothetical technology to proof of concept was made in 1971, when muscle cells were first cultivated in a lab by US researcher Russell Ross. One of the most ardent promoters of cultured meat was Dutch physician Willem van Eelen, known as the “Godfather of Cultured Meat”, who made in-vitro food his life’s mission, filed several patents, and did much to make the Netherlands a research hub for clean meat technologies.
By the time Van Eelen passed away in 2015 at age 91, he had witnessed Mark Post’s breakthrough at Maastricht University: the first lab-grown hamburger patty, developed with support from Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Meanwhile, the price per kilogram of cultured meat has declined steeply due to economies of scale. In July 2019, a Mosa Meat spokeswoman told Reuters: “Once production is scaled up, we project the cost of producing a hamburger will be around €9,” adding that an in-vitro beef patty might even end up being cheaper than a conventional hamburger.
Next steps – and obstacles
At the level of innovation, the next target is to grow a more structured, multi-layered product. But there are still some obstacles that could delay the full commercialization of clean meat. Supertrends experts have identified several technical hurdles to be overcome: more efficient means of incubating cells, including the development of a more efficient and cheaper alternative to Fetal Bovine Serum as a growth medium; the development of a specific bioreactor dedicated to cultured meat; and an inexpensive edible scaffold to assist the growth of structured cuts of meat. All of these challenges, the experts believe, can be resolved within the near future.
Less predictable are regulatory questions around food safety and labeling. These may be handled differently, and be resolved quicker or more slowly, in different parts of the world, depending on the strictness and complexity of regulation and oversight procedures. Bureaucratic and regulatory inertia may dovetail with the desire of entrenched interests to prevent or delay the market introduction of competing products that may threaten the business models of the retail industry and cattle farmers. Lobbying efforts are already well underway to label cultured meat as a “fake” or otherwise undesirable alternative to conventional meat. Paul Shapiro, who has studied the commercialization of the clean meat industry, believes startups should seek cooperation rather than confrontation with big businesses: “To avoid obstruction from threatened incumbent interests, we need to bring meat corporations on board.”
The ultimate test, however, will be the societal acceptance of in-vitro meat by consumers. Will they perceive it as “Frankenfood”, an artificial and synthetic product dreamed up by nutty professors in their white lab coats, to be shunned by all those who crave the authenticity of “real” meat? Or is cultured meat the right product at the right time, a perfect answer to the moral dilemma of consumers who want to save the climate, but are reluctant to ban the juicy taste of meat from their diets? In the end, this ethical framing may be the key factor in determining whether or not cultured meat will go mainstream.
A world without cowboys
It is interesting to imagine a world where all meat for human consumption comes from bioreactors, and where slaughterhouses are but a distant memory. What would happen to cattle farmers, who in many countries constitute sizeable electoral blocs? How would their grazing land be used, and which other forms of agriculture might be suitable alternatives? What would be the cultural impact for humanity if domesticated animals, which have been part of our civilization for many thousands of years, were to disappear altogether? By forgoing slaughtered meat, would we be reconciled to nature, or experience an even greater estrangement from the world outside our towns and cities?
The answers may differ from person to person and according to geography, cultural preferences, and even religion. After all, in-vitro meat would also cast dietary choices in a new light: Would the prescriptions of kashrut and halal apply to cultured meat in the same way as to butchered meat? Can pork meat grown in a petri dish be considered to be derived from an unclean animal? How many vegetarians and vegans who avoid meat for ethical reasons would be delighted to add burgers to their menu if they knew that no animals suffered on their account? One thing is clear: Commercialization of cultured meat will not be an immediate solution to all our problems, but will shake up the food industry in ways that we are only now beginning to anticipate.