Last month, the first ever lab-grown chicken and duck were revealed and tasted by San Francisco start-up Memphis Meats - a milestone for the burgeoning so-called ‘clean meat’ industry. The verdict? Great flavour, slightly spongy, and most of the lucky tasters would go back for more. Scientists across the globe (have a look at Mosa and Supermeat) are racing to scale up cultured meat production; the technology exists, now it’s a matter of fine tuning the tech and bringing down production cost. According to Dutch start up Mosa Meat, we can expect cultured meat to be available within the next 5 years.
This comes after Mark Post’s $330,000 cultured beef burger was tasted and broadcast live in 2013, and Memphis’ beef meatball in 2016. Research is currently taking place to develop cultured Turkey meat, pork and lobster meat. So far, animal tissue has been created, but the technology to produce entire muscles, for instance to bio-engineer an entire steak or chicken breast, is in development.
What exactly is cultured meat?
Essentially, meat from real animal cells is grown outside of an animal’s body. Animal cells are harvested in a nonintrusive procedure (like a biopsy), and multiply in carefully developed conditions known as a ‘culture’. Currently, the growth culture is fetal bovine serum, but research is underway to find non-animal alternatives.
The cells merge together in inch-long muscle strands, which are then layered together to make the same kind of meat we eat today. This process takes approximately 2 months, and replicates the natural lifecycle of the cell. Rather than shortening this process, scaling up the technology involves increasing the bulk of meat produced. The fundamental techniques come from the field of regenerative medicine, which aims to restore dysfunctional human organs - think of cell stem research. The idea of growing tissue outside of a body is not novel, but its application to food is.
Why is this important?
In vitro meat technology could allow us to keep eating meat while significantly reducing its environmental impact. Studies estimate that it could reduce the meat sector’s greenhouse emissions by 78-96%, water consumption by 82-96% and land use by 99%. Even with high uncertainty regarding these figures, it seems that the environmental impact of clean meat would be significantly lower than conventional livestock farming.
On the other hand, one study suggests that these reductions in land use and water could come at the cost of more intensive energy use, where biological functions like digestion and nutrient circulation need to be replaced by industrial alternatives. For example, manufacturing chicken tissue with a conventional nutrient like glucose could use more energy and release more greenhouse gases than chicken farming, because ingredients need to be heated to body temperature.
Lab-grown meat also has the potential to be healthier than conventionally produced meat. With far fewer animals, waste, and feed, it is much easier to control the conditions and keep the free from bacterial contamination. Though antibiotics are currently used in harvesting cells from animals to keep it sterile, the long-term aim is to remove antibiotic use altogether, slowing the spread of antibiotic resistance from animal agriculture.
While early taste tests confirmed that fat was necessary for achieving the real meat flavour, the chemical makeup of the meat can be fine-tuned so that each piece of meat is as nutritious and low in unhealthy fats as possible.
What’s in the way?
Scale, regulation, consumer acceptance.
In the absence of current government support, helping to fund and kickstart this industry are several organizations such as New Harvest, the Good Food Institute, Indiebio and New Crop Capital. These organisations fund research, find investors, and work on the publicity of these new products. New Harvest has even started its own cellular agriculture graduate programme in Tufts University, the first of its kind.
One of the key barriers in bringing these products to market is the process of fine-tuning and scaling up the technology. At the moment, cultured meat is grown in small containers in laboratories, but to scale up there will need to be bioreactors: large-scale containers where biological reactions can be carried out.
The fact we are in such unchartered waters also makes regulation a potential hurdle. Cellular agriculture for meat, where entire cells proliferate outside of the animal, does not have any precedent and so may face more regulatory hurdles. Some headway is being made, as was clear in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine's report published last month, which was commissioned by the US Government to advise on regulating systems for new biotechnology products. Though this is a ‘good first step of encouragement’ there is still much work to be done, including collaboration with industry professionals, before the policies necessary for commercialisation will be realised.
The novelty of cellular agriculture in general makes it difficult to secure research grants and influence policymakers. This, along with limited availability, makes consumer acceptance of lab-grown meat an unknown. Few studies exist on public attitudes to in vitro meat. However, a recent study that surveyed potential consumers in the US found that whilst most were willing to try in vitro meat, only one third were definitely or probably willing to eat in vitro meat regularly, or as a replacement for farmed meat. The main concerns were around anticipated high price, limited taste and appeal, and a concern that the product was unnatural.
In the same study, few believed that lab-grown meat would replace farmed meat in their diet. Will our imaginations hold it back? Or will the combined promise of nutritional benefits; land, water and greenhouse gas savings; and cruelty-free production be potent enough to accelerate cellular agriculture’s path to market?
- Kadim, Isam T., Osman Mahgoub, Senan Baqir, Bernard Faye, and Roger Purchas. "Cultured Meat from Muscle Stem Cells: A Review of Challenges and Prospects." Journal of Integrative Agriculture 14.2 (2015): 222-33. Web.
- Post, Mark J. "Cultured Beef: Medical Technology to Produce Food." Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 94.6 (2013): 1039-041. Web.
- Post, Mark J. "Cultured Meat from Stem Cells: Challenges and Prospects." Meat Science 92.3 (2012): 297-301. Web.
- Wilks M, Phillips CJC (2017) Attitudes to in vitro meat: A survey of potential consumers in the United States. PLoS ONE 12(2): e0171904. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0171904
- Mattick, C.S., Landis, A.E., Allenby, B.R. and Genovese, N.J. “Anticipatory Life Cycle Analysis of In Vitro Biomass Cultivation for Cultured Meat Production in the United States.” Environ. Sci. Technol., 2015, 49 (19), pp 11941–11949. Accessed via https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.est.5b01614.