It is very questionable how long we can sustain this, especially in view of the growing world population. As such, it is no surprise that there is a lot of money going into research and development of meat alternative products. We’ve seen plant-based meat alternatives for many years now from brands like Quorn and Linda McCartney. One type of meat alternative that has been making a racket this decade has been cultured meat, or in-vitro meat – meat grown in a lab.
If you observe muscle under a microscope, there are tiny cells within it which we call stem cells. They’re there to repair the muscle and can only make muscle tissue/fibre. Stem cells can multiply into tremendous numbers and this is the manner in which cultured meat is being produced. ‘Satellite’ stem cells are selected, placed into a petri dish and an anchor point, a growth medium, is used to culture the cells. An anchor point is necessary as the stem cells actually grab and cling on to the anchor point before beginning to multiply. From one stem cell around 10,000kg of meat can, theoretically, be made. As it stands, the muscle fibre grown in labs tends to be of a more yellowy distinction than meat normally is. This is because there is a lack of blood in the system, nor is there myoglobin in the system.
Myoglobin is a protein in the colourful muscle cells which is very similar to haemoglobin (blood cells) which turns red if exposed to oxygen and muscle cells typically have an abundance of it. This lack of blood also in turn means that cultured meat does not contain vitamin B12, an essential vitamin found in meat products which otherwise must be supplemented.
https://reader.chathamhouse.org/meat-analogues-considerations-eu#innovation-in-meat-analogues – Chatham House (heme is the non-protein part of haemoglobin)
However, cultured meat needs to be efficient, by which is meant more efficient than a cow or a pig. It also has to be meat, not a meat substitute (although this area is slightly clouded over by moral perspective which will be examined under the ‘Fake vs. Clean’ section). To be nutritionally equivalent and more efficient, cultured meat would need to provide all of the essential amino acids, along with vitamin B12. It would also be necessary to supplement iron. Examples of non-meat meat alternatives are already numerous and are more often than not made out of vegetable protein. Cultured meat needs to mimic taste, colour and texture of meat. Furthermore, the lab-grown meat created so far has been grown from stem cells taken from foetal bovine serum (FBS). As such, it isn’t an entirely suitable alternative for vegetarians, however, it is likely to be viewed by vegetarians as a step forward.
In order to tackle the vegetarian criticism of cultured meat, Meatable, a Netherlands based lab-grown meat start-up, has claimed it has developed a process which avoids using FBS. Meatable states that it has developed a procedure entirely by sourcing stem cells from animals’ umbilical cords. This is the same process that people use to bank a baby’s stem cells at birth. So-called ‘cord blood’ is collected because the stem cells it contains can be used to treat a variety of disorders and conditions ranging from leukaemia to sickle cell disease.
Currently, cultured meat production is highly labour-intensive. In shifting from the laboratory to industrial-scale bioreactors, cultured meat producers should be able to achieve economies of scale, but tissue engineering to this extent is both unprecedented and unproven. The technological process involved in producing an in-vitro steak, for example, requires culturing a more complex tissue, including multiple cell types. Considerable progress is needed to achieve a steak or a similar whole-cut of meat that achieves the colour, flavour and nutritional profile of meat harvested from an animal – and to do so in a manner that is economically viable is even more challenging and therefore significantly further from market.
In 2004 the Dutch government awarded 2million euros to a consortium of universities and research facilities. Fast forward a decade and the Mosa Meat burger in 2013 cost $325,000 (roughly £250,000/euros) to produce. Today it costs around $8 to make the same burger. Despite production costs having fallen drastically in the last decade, it is still expensive to produce cultured meat in relation to what current prices of meat are for the consumer. This price reflects the fact that the current market is not designed for the production of large quantities of cultured meat, nor is it wholly ready for a cultured meat industry. This hasn’t stopped individuals of stature investing in the industry. Bill Gates has invested in both Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats, as well as Biz Stone and Richard Branson investing in the respective companies.
It is estimated that the value of the global cultured meat market could reach $20million by 2027. Regionally, North America is projected to dominate the cultured meat market in 2021, as the region is characterised by significant investment in the development of meat analogues. The market is also expanding into Asia, since China’s signature in 2017 of a $300million agreement to import cultured meat technologies from Israel and the Japanese government’s participation in May 2018 in a $2.7million funding round for a new ‘clean meat’ start-up, Integriculture.
One of the big discussion points around rearing livestock is the environmental impact the practice has and this has to be addressed in a significant way by cultured meat. What kind of footprint will cultured meat have? The potential effect of cultured meat on energy, water and land usage has been estimated by David Welch, the director of science and technology at the Good Food Institute, to use greater amounts of energy but less water and land. Two reports that have looked at the matter, one in 2011 and one in 2015. The former hypothesised that cultured meat would take less land, water and energy, as well as generating fewer GHG emissions. The latter found that cultured meat would require less land and water but more energy. In fact, it is estimated that for every indoor acre of meat farming, some 10 to 20 outdoor acres could be allowed to return to their ecological state.
* https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es200130u – Environmental Impact of Cultured Meat Production
Despite energy costs for producing cultured meat being generally higher than the energy costs for rearing livestock, the considerably lower land usage of cultured meat could downplay this. More land could be used for bio-energy production and it could then be argued that the overall energy efficiency of cultured meat would be more favourable. However, energy-intensive forms of cultured production could be quite an extreme case where we’re potentially basically swapping methane for a fossil fuel, carbon dioxide. Nonetheless, it is also important to remember that new energy technologies are constantly being developed with a focal point being energy storage, so some of the potential energy output by cultured meat could not just be offset by its comparatively lower land and water usage, but it’s overall energy usage and/or wastage could be cut down too.
Of course, it would be illogical to look at the negative effects of livestock rearing without observing the positive ones it has. Cows increase the diversity and resilience of the grass it grazes on which, in turn, helps the biological activity in the soil. This helps trap CO2 from the atmosphere in the soil. So, despite all the methane released by cattle and the CO2 it takes to rear them, there is some climate combat enacted by cattle. If we choose to feed a less methane-emitting animal grain instead of grass, we are tying up huge ecosystems into monoculture whilst ploughing and sending enormous amounts of CO2 into the air with the ploughs whilst also weakening the soil structure. It can easily be said that the consequences behind the emittance of methane and CO2 far outweigh the ecological benefits of rearing cattle and other livestock. However, this does not mean we should just leave the benefits out of the equation when discussing how we ought to take steps forward.
This workshop is especially designed for farmers, cooperatives, government representatives, academics, industry leaders and agtech companies.
Challenge Advisory has sourced over 40 expert speakers, who will gather to debate the key issues facing the ag industry today, including modern farming practices and challenges.
Taking place in California, the main agricultural state of the US, AG 4.0 is designed around 8 core topic streams and will also be featuring 6 networking breaks, as well as 20 workshops and numerous keynote addresses undertaken by Forbes influential industry leaders.
Put together via extensive research on the main challenges U.S. agriculture and its farmers are facing today, the event will provide a platform for farmers to inform agtech companies on what they think is needed for the industry. Finally, don’t forget to check out our conference for digital twin 2019 and get more information on our official page.
The start-to-end environmental footprint of cultured meat at large scale is not available as no group has yet achieved this production feat. Until such time as cultured meat is being produced at scale in industrial bioreactors – at which point it may be safe to assume that cultured meat will have been approved under EU or US Federal regulations and investments will have been made toward the necessary infrastructure – it is not possible to assess fully the resource intensity of cultured meat production.
There are two kinds of unease often attributed to in-vitro meat. The first is in relation to unnaturalness and our relationship with nature – the ‘yuck’ factor. The second is about the idea that in-vitro meat promotes moral laziness. The mode and production of in-vitro meat makes a difference for the appreciation of in-vitro meat just as they do for ‘normal’ meat and, in developing in-vitro meat, production processes need as much attention as the products themselves. The yuck factor is fairly self-explanatory – meat grown in a lab seems unnatural and induces a ‘yuck’ reaction. Beyond the yuck factor, the lab-grown food movement has also been criticised for potentially displacing farmworkers or creating products that will be too expensive for the wider population. Some vegetarians say it is still meat, even if it is grown in the lab and that’s not healthy. This is exemplified by the fact that it is not vegetarian society approved. Others say high-tech won’t necessarily help the planet – silver bullet solutions don’t work.
The influence of new, high-tech is what the second argument of unease revolves around. In the short-term, in-vitro meat may not be much more than a source of hope for many people. Does it therefore stand in the way of moral change? Of course, technology and morality are not necessarily opposing ways of dealing with problems: they can be intertwined. Technology can be developed for moral reasons and for moral goals. In-vitro meat is a clear example. Those who reject in-vitro meat as a source of moral change may be too optimistic about behaviour change; despite the urgency of a decrease in meat consumption, the global trend is very different.
In legal terms, labelling of cultured meat has come under the microscope too. In the US, neither the USDA or FDA have announced how lab-grown meat will be labelled. However, there has been a state law passed in Missouri that stipulates in order to call something meat it has to come from an actual animal. Many ranchers and those in the meat industry refer to cultured meat as ‘fake meat’, whilst some of those working on cultured meat refer to it as ‘clean meat’. For advocates of cultured meat, there is no difference between it and ‘normal’ meat. They’re the same product, only produced in different processes. These two labels reveal how stark a contrast exists at the moment and how important legal labelling of the produce will be.
This polarising ‘fake’ vs. ‘clean’ meat framing that boils this complex issue down to a simple good vs. bad dichotomy. The opposite of fake is ‘natural’ and, modelled after ‘clean’ energy, ‘clean’ meat is by inference superior to its alternative, which must logically be ‘dirty’ meat. The problem with this dichotomous framing is that is overlooks the rest of the story. Cattle produce more than just hamburgers for well-off consumers and they typically do so by utilising rain-fed forage growing on non-arable land. They produce macro and micronutrients, fibres, hides, skins, fertiliser and fuel, as well as being used for transportation draft power, a source of income and a form of banking for millions of smallholder farmers in developing countries. Even in developed countries, the products and ecosystem services produced by cattle extend well beyond milk and harvestable boneless meat.
So, in the future, how will we define meat? Today the question is whether the companies advocating the replacement of animals in the food chain will trigger an upheaval on the scale of what refrigeration or canning achieved, or if it is a shift only of interest to a limited segment – perhaps vegans and the health-conscious. The foods may win some popularity based on the idea that they are better for the environment, as they necessitate fewer GHG emissions. They appeal to our sense of logic. Our food decisions are not based purely on intellectual reasoning; for instance, many of us consume meat even though it’s clear most animals were raised in factory settings and didn’t have the best of lives.
Public attitudes toward cultured meat will be shaped, to a significant degree, by civil society narratives. The growing number of meat reduction campaigns, such as ‘Meat Free Mondays’ and ‘Veganuary’, amongst others, have also been influential in raising awareness of the benefits of eating less meat and fostering the consumption of more plant-based meat alternatives. Yet past experience of civil society-led public discourse on GMOs in Europe, and its influence on low public attendance of GM technologies in the EU, is indicative of the power of NGOs to shape both public opinion and public policy and regulatory responses. Of course, this observation is very Western/Eurocentric. In countries like China and India, where middle-class population has surged so far this century, moving from a heavily plant-based diet to one which involves large quantities of meat has been an essential symbol of breaking through into middle-class lifestyle. As such, we would need to consider different mechanisms and thought processes to encourage the adoption of cultured meat in such areas.
Key barriers include lower perceived quality, increasing competition, unrealistic consumer expectations and ineffective marketing strategies. On the other hand, raising the profile of meat alternatives, technological advances and increasing interest from consumers, investors and policymakers can support the market success of meat alternatives. It is worth remembering that every new technology brings with it a potential for new products, new habits and new cultures. Perhaps, before we decide whether we want to eat meat grown in a lab, we ought to explore the food culture that in-vitro meat may bring with it.