19 October 2018

Will lab-grown meat really change the future of food?


We gluttonous Westerners are being told to dramatically cut our meat consumption to reduce our carbon footprint, but it could well be that a pioneering new technology removes the need for any enforced vegetarianism.

If we can resist the combined force of heavy-handed regulation and the farm lobby, this new innovation could well help save the planet, stop around 70 billion animals from being slaughtered each year and allow us to enjoy juicy steaks guilt-free.

Lab-grown meat, that is meat grown from animal stem cells (which means there’s no need to kill the animal), is a technique currently being developed by several start-ups across the world – from Silicon Valley to Tel Aviv – and it’s attracting millions in funding. While the various companies involved have not yet scaled up production, lab-grown or ‘cultured’ meat could come to challenge the way our food has been produced for millennia.

Mark Post, a Dutch scientist and pioneer of cellular agriculture, is the brains behind Mosa Meat, a start-up producing cultured meat. His first lab-grown hamburger, grilled in 2013, cost a pretty eye-watering £220,000. To be fair, that figure was the budget for an entire tissue engineering lab, not just the cost of the patty itself. Post estimates that if he started mass producing his burgers, which he is hoping he will do within the next three to four years, he could get the cost of making them down to about £8 each – still much higher than an ordinary beef patty, but within the realm of being a consumer product.

The potential environmental and animal welfare benefits of growing meat without animals are exiting, but there are big challenges ahead, including regulatory barriers. In fact, it has not even been determined what the product should be labelled or who should regulate this new industry. Should it be called lab-grown meat? Clean meat? Cellular meat? Cultured meat? In vitro meat? Craft meat?

Whatever it’s called, cultured meat has got the ‘real’ meat industry rattled. The US Cattlemen’s Association, a trade association representing ranchers, has already petitioned the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to limit the labelling of meat and beef to products from livestock which have been “raised, and harvested in the traditional manner”.  In August this year, Missouri became the first American state to ban “meat” from the product labels of plant-based and lab-grown alternatives.

In the US, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are holding a joint meeting later this month to address public concerns about cultured meat products and to examine how they will fit into existing food systems. It will also discuss the contentious issue of labelling. If it’s decided that lab-grown meat will in fact be called meat, it’ll be regulated by the USDA. If it’s not allowed to be called meat, it’ll be looked after by the FDA.

Some activists avoid the term cultured meat (referring to the cell cultures in which it grows) in favour of clean meat, which sounds reassuring and has echoes of clean energy. The supposed environmental benefits of lab-grown meat are often promoted by the industry, although only a few studies of its implications have been conducted.

It’s widely accepted that raising animals for food is one of the major causes of both global warming and air and water pollution – and demand is growing fast. By 2050, a combinatin of rising population and living standards is projected to boost meat demand by 70 per cent, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. You don’t have to be a Malthusian fatalist to suggest it makes sense to look at alternatives to traditional animal husbandry.

According to a study from the Environmental Sciences & Technology Journal, this new innovation is projected to use up to 99 per cent less land and 96 per cent less water. It is also estimated that cultured meat production would lower greenhouse gas emissions by 78 to 96 per cent compared to conventionally produced European meat.

Unfortunately, the environmental case may not be as cut-and-dried as those exciting figures imply. Another study found that lab-grown meat production might actually end up consuming more energy than it takes to raise cows. While growing meat in factories may require smaller quantities of agricultural inputs and land than livestock, biological functions such as digestion and nutrient circulation are replaced by industrial equivalents which means that the benefits could come at the expense of more intensive energy use. From this perspective, large-scale cultured meat production could represent a new phase of industrialisation with inherently complex and challenging trade-offs.

At the same time, there are other significant potential benefits to cultured meat. For instance, current meat production uses up to 70 per cent of the antibiotics critical to medical use in humans and cases of resistance are on the rise, driven by intensive farming practices. In contrast, cultured meat production does not require the use of any antibiotics.

Cultured meat could also help reduce cases of food poisoning and diseases such as salmonella as, unlike many farms where conditions may be unsanitary and lead to contaminated food, cultured meat production takes place under laboratory conditions. Ingredients can also be optimised for human health and include less saturated fat which could reduce heart diseases and strokes.

Even if lab-grown meat were both environmentally and economically sustainable, that would not necessarily make it the de facto choice for producers or consumers. Then there are the well-funded producer interests. Around the world, animal agriculture is a way of life for a billion people, who use livestock for more than just meat. The cultured meat industry will be up against powerful lobby organisations and trade associations – not to mention anti-GMO activists – who are more than willing to fight tooth and nail against any product that threatens their livelihood and will find pliant politicians with a friendly ear.

There’s also the question of whether there will be much of a market for what many may consider ‘fake’ meat. A survey commissioned by The Grocer in October 2016 suggested the majority of Brits were not receptive to the concept of lab-grown meats. Only 16 per cent of the 2,082 people surveyed were open to tasting cultured meats, though interestingly men were significantly more interested than women: nearly a quarter of male respondents were willing to taste it, compared with less than ten per cent of women.

However, public opinion already appears to be changing, even though we are probably years away from cultured meat products hitting the shelves. In February of this year, showed 42 per cent of respondents would be willing to try lab meat or fish if prepared in a restaurant, though fewer would eat cultured meat if prepared by a fast food outlet.

While it may take time for the public to get used to eating meat grown in a lab, it is difficult to see how traditional animal husbandry can carry on as it is as the world’s population and demand for meat grow. That’s leaving aside the ethics of slaughtering 70 billion animals each year to feed seven billion people, with a very large proportion of those animals are raised in very poor welfare conditions in factory farms.

The radical innovations of today will transform tomorrow in ways regulations, restrictions or bans don’t even come close to. Despite the challenges it faces, cultured meat production may well prove to become essential for securing the food supply of the future.

Sofia Svensson is a CapX intern and a freelance writer.