The Context of Cultured Meat Today

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Cultured meat, also referred to as lab-grown or clean meat, is made possible thanks to cellular agriculture. It is meat that is produced by in vitro cultivation of animal cells. Even though its development only gained momentum in recent years, in vitro cultivation of muscular fibres was performed as early as 1971. In the early 2000s, it was popularised by Jason Matheny who co-authored a seminal paper on cultured meat production and created New Harvest, a non-profit institute dedicated to the field of cellular agriculture for cultured animal products.

In contrast to traditional meat, lab-grown meat is produced without the slaughter of an animal. Instead, cell lines from an animal are collected, usually stem cells, and then immersed in a culture media in order to proliferate. To give these developing cells the right structure, scaffolds are used. The cells and culture media are then exposed to the necessary environmental factors in bioreactors in order to grow. Ground meats are easier to grow because they do not require as much structuring.

Infographic from New Harvest explaining the process of lab-grown meat | Credits: New Harvest

Cells are often grown in media containing Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS); an expensive serum derived from blood collected from the calves of pregnant dairy cows. There are two arguments that make the use of this media problematic, the first being that its production is unethical, and the second that it is contradictory to the initial goal of cellular agriculture to be independent from the use of animals. Until recently, none of the clean meat companies had been able to grow animal tissue without using FBS. Companies cannot plan to produce clean meat products for the public without developing animal component-free growth media. Many have been able to develop such media in the last few years.

Cultured Meat Milestones

In 2013, the public was formally introduced to the world’s first in vitro meat burger at a press conference in London. The burger made of tiny bits of cultured beef muscle tissue was tasted by food critics Hanni Ruetzler and Josh Schonwald. Both critics did not question that the burger was meat, but commented on the lack of juice and fat. Developed by Dr. Post and his team in the Netherlands, at the time, the single patty cost € 250,000 ($ 330,000).

With little government investment, actors in the sector have been mostly relying on private investments. In fact, investors have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into research. The cost of producing a cultured meat burger has fallen since 2013, but it is still considerably more expensive than a traditional burger. Scaling up production will be key in driving down prices.

As of last year, none of these meat alternatives had even been approved for sale. In December 2020, Eat Just Inc. based in San Francisco, made the exciting announcement that its cultured chicken had been approved in Singapore. This was the first ever regulatory allowance for meat created from animal cells in the world.

An image showing the products Eat Just Inc. hopes to offer in the future | Credits: Eat Just Inc.

Two weeks following regulatory approval, Eat Just Inc. managed the first sale of cultured meat to the establishment 1800 in Singapore, known to propose innovative menus in its restaurant. 1800 Executive Chef, Colin Buchan commented that he viewed this opportunity as a very exciting collaboration: “It’s something we’ve never quite seen before and I think people are going to love it.”

Today, there are dozens of startups working on cultured meat around the world. While some are more advanced than others, we are still not quite at the stage of finding these alternatives in our local supermarkets. Moreover, though lab-grown meat is genuine meat, as opposed to plant-based alternatives, it is hard to measure the consumer interest. In a industry report, The Good Food Institute revealed that more than 15 types of cultivated meat were being pursued by startups, including beef, chicken, pork, duck, white fish, mouse, salmon, tuna, foie gras, fish maw, kangaroo, horse and sturgeon. We have yet to see how consumers react to it.

Arguments in Favour and Criticisms

The global population having surpassed 7 billion people, reconsidering our food systems is inevitable if we wish to respond to the growth in food demand without jeopardising our planet. Because cultured meat is not produced commercially at a large scale as of yet, estimates about its environmental impact are based on assumptions, which result in different conclusions about its efficiency.

The Good Food Institute, which advocates that lab-grown meat will be able to meet the increasing food demand, believes that growing meat directly from cells is vastly more efficient. According to research they cite, cultured meat would use land 60 to 300% more efficiently than poultry and 2000 to 4000% more efficiently than beef, and this greater efficiency would also benefit biodiversity, the climate, food safety and animal welfare (see infographic below).

Some counter arguments do exist though. An interesting paper published in Frontiers of Nutrition reviews some of what they call, the myths of cultured meat. Firstly, the researchers correctly point to the fact that cultured meat still has a long way to go before it can actually be produced at scale. Real muscle is made up of organized fibers, blood vessels, nerves, connective tissue and fat cells. Therefore, “the production of a thick piece of meat like a real steak is still a dream, due to the necessity of perfusing oxygen inside the meat to mimic the diffusion of oxygen as it occurs in real tissue,” you can read in the paper.

Image via the New Scientist article “Accelerating the cultured meat revolution” (Access HERE)

The authors also suggest that we do not fully understand the potential effects on human health of in vitro meat consumption. Whilst we could potentially reduce antibiotic use and expensive vaccinations against diseases like influenza, the process of cell culture cannot be said to be ever fully controlled, thus some unexpected biological mechanisms or contamination could occur. Therefore, in the end, antibiotics could be needed to prevent any contamination. Cultured meat also lacks some healthy micronutrients (such as vitamin B12 and iron), given that no strategy has been put in place yet to endow it with these nutrients.

In terms of environmental impact, many agree that cultured meat will produce less greenhouse gas emissions, consume less water and use less land than conventional meat. However, the authors argue that this comparison is biased or at least partial. For example, cultured meat emissions are mostly made up of CO2 due to the fossil fuel energy needed to warm cultured cells. Therefore, “global warming will be less with cultured meat than with cattle initially, but not in the long term because CH4 does not accumulate so long in the atmosphere, unlike CO2.CH4 (methane) is the primary emission associated with livestock farming.

The same goes for water, even if cultured meat requires less water than conventional meat, the quality of water may not be so good “if we consider the activities of the chemical industry for the production of the growth factors and hormones required for cell culture.” Finally, it’s hard to argue that cultured meat could ever need as much land as livestock farming. Nevertheless, the authors still make the point that farming plays a role in maintaining soil carbon content and soil fertility, as manure from livestock is a source of organic matter, nitrogen, and phosphorus.

Needless to say if the technology behind lab-grown meat develops as expected, the significance of clean meat will largely depend on consumers’ acceptance of this product. A topic for another article.

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