The idea of eating meat grown in a test tube may sound like the futuristic stuff of science fiction, but thanks to several forward-thinking start-ups, it’s one food revolution that’s almost upon us.
According to the scientists at the helm of this brave new world, we’ll soon be producing cultured meat - or “clean” meat as it’s known in the industry - from any number of species, with no animal needing to suffer. These new technologies have the potential to change meat as we know it, and with an ethical and humane future for the billions of animals killed worldwide every year for meat looking closer by the day, it’s a revolution that can’t come soon enough.
What is Cultured Meat?
The process of creating meat begins by taking stem cells from the muscle tissues of an animal under anaesthesia. These cells are added to a medium (comprised of nutrients and growth factors) which is placed in a bioreactor, a machine that enables the cells to multiply. Once these cells proliferate into their millions, the cell strands are artificially layered together forming exactly the same product from the outset – meat. And it’s meat that’s free of antibiotics, steroids, pesticides and a host of other chemicals required to keep livestock healthy.
A Brief History of Cultured Meat
In 2013, the chief scientific officer of the Netherlands-based Mosa Meat, Mark Post, presented the world’s first cultured beef burger created in a petri dish in London, which cost an eye-watering $454,000 AUD. Since then around 40 companies, mainly in Europe and the U.S., have scrambled to produce cultured meat at a commercially viable cost. There’s California-based Memphis Meats whose cell-grown meatballs and chicken wings garnered worldwide attention a few years back, while the Singapore-based Shiok Meats is leading the way with cell-based crustaceans.
Israel’s Future Meat Technologies, meanwhile, has drastically cut the manufacturing process to two weeks, allowing for a much greater meat yield and dramatically reduced production costs. Several Australian companies are racing to produce clean meat, including Heuros in Brisbane and Sydney’s Vow that’s currently experimenting with cell-meat from kangaroos.
Green-Friendly Cultured Meat
Animal agriculture is one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gas emissions globally and the amount of land surface that’s required for animal feed is rapidly increasing every year. In contrast, Mosa Meat claims it can produce 800 million strands of muscle tissue, which is enough to make a staggering 80,000 quarter pounders, from just one cow. Such mind-boggling numbers make humanity’s shift towards cultured meat a definite no-brainer!
Pandemic-Proof Cultured Meat
The recent coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we live our life and has shown us what’s working and what isn’t. Flexible working arrangements, staying home when sick and a slower pace of life - working. Eating animals - not working. Since the pandemic reached full swing around March 2020, sales for plant-based meat in the US grew by 285%.
It’s well known that the coronavirus pandemic came as a result of eating wild meat however previous epidemics, like swine flu and bird flu, were the result of farmed animals. The often cramped and unhygienic conditions of many animal farms are breeding grounds for bacteria and disease. Combine that with the close human to animal contact and you have a recipe for zoonotic disease outbreaks.
It’s becoming clear that continuing to farm and eat meat and other animal products the way we do is tempting fate. The risk of another pandemic becomes a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’. Enter cultured meat, a way to have your steak and eat it too - without risking a pandemic.
Human-Friendly Cultured Meat
There’s no doubt about it, humans love meat. The demand for meat is on the rise and is expected to double by 2050. This despite the fact that a diet high in animal products has been linked to chronic illnesses such as heart disease - the leading cause of death in the western world. On top of this, the earth simply cannot sustain the livestock required to meet the growing demand for meat. This paints a grim picture of our future. One in which ill health and food insecurity reigns. In this future, less privileged people suffer. They will endure both food insecurity and lower quality, less healthy meat.
Cultured meat offers a two pronged solution. It has the potential to meet the growing demand for meat while using less resources and it can provide healthier meat. After all, it is meat made in a lab; the quality can be controlled.
Animal-Friendly Cultured Meat
Billions of animals are slaughtered each year to become the food on our plates. Prior to their slaughter, they often live a life of cruel captivity. The rise of veganism around the world shows that people are becoming more aware of the conditions animals face and aren’t willing to let taste dictate their moral compass. But wouldn’t it be great if we could hold on to our moral values and enjoy the taste of meat without hurting animals in the process? Clean meat offers to do just that.
Beyond just meat, this technology has the potential to provide us with any animal product without the animal cruelty. Imagine a cruelty free cultured brie, healthier than the traditional product, and looking beautiful on your cruelty free cheese board.
Is Cultured Meat Really the Solution?
If all goes to plan, cultured meat really could be the solution it promises to be but there are some drawbacks.
Firstly, it’s currently not widely available and it can be expensive. Furthermore, it is still in its early stages so there are no guarantees when it comes to future availability, price and of course whether it delivers on its promise to look, taste and feel like the real thing.
There are those who are uncomfortable with the notion of ‘playing god’ and producing meat in a petri dish. This could prove to be a barrier for some. For many there are ethical implications to this kind of science that must be considered.
Cultured meat is also not entirely cruelty free. Early prototypes used Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS) as a growth factor in the serum to multiply the meat cells. But this is changing fast. Several leading companies, including Future Meat Technologies, have ditched FBS and use a process that starts with animal cells but these cells can proliferate indefinitely cancelling out the requirement for more animal components.
Lastly, there are legal considerations such as food safety. As of 2019 cultured meat is regulated by the USDA and FDA. This is great news but, as cultured meat is a relatively new industry, it means that food safety is an important consideration to factor into its future viability.
Cultured meat, however, is fast becoming a reality. In December, Singapore became the first country in the world to approve the sale of cell-based chicken from the San Franscisco startup Eat Just. In Australia, where food safety standards are strict, it might be some time before Eat Just’s chicken nuggets hit our supermarkets.
That being said, we are consuming more meat than is healthy, risking future pandemics, hurting the environment and heading towards food insecurity. Given the way our society is currently functioning what is most obvious is that business as usual is not going to cut it. Some sort of solution is required. Cultured meat is looking like our best bet and it absolutely deserves to be explored.
The Future of Meat
The world of cultured meat is moving at a galloping pace with several leading cultured meat start-ups hoping to have an affordable product commercially available within the next two years. Boosted early on with money from large venture capital firms, along with entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Richard Branson, the industry is expected to be worth around $15m by 2021.
Almost a decade before Britain was plunged into war-time rationing, Winston Churchill in his 1932 essay, Fifty Years Hence, uncannily predicted the coming of clean meat. In the future, he insisted, “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.” Happily, for the world’s animals, the future of meat without murder is almost here.
Authors: Lara Zamiatin & Jana Lepojevic