“The next major revolution–on a scale with moving from the horse and cart to the automobile–is going to be in food,” says technology entrepreneur Paul Cuatrecasas, author of Go Tech or Go Extinct, resolving that “the biggest thing will be the development of cultured meat.”
This is certainly a bold statement, but not hyperbolic.The world’s growing appetite for meat in both developed and developing worlds means land, water and GHG emissions involved in meat production are rapidly becoming unsustainable. Whilst the global population has more than doubled in the last 50 years, the amount of meat we consume has more than quadrupled, to over 320 million tonnes a year. Forecasts for this demand for meat is not going away – expected to hit 455 million tons by 2050 (UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 2018). Science’s solution for this is lab-grown meat.
Making lab-grown meat, also known as cultured meat, involves four main components; A cell culture, a scaffold, growth medium and a bioreactor. The cell culture is made by taking stem cells from an animal and grown in vitro to permanently establish a cell line. The scaffold serves as a surface forreplicating cells to stick to. The growth medium, such as Foetal Bovine Serum, is required for the cells to grow. Finally, the bioreactor is a temperature-controlled environment that intakes fresh nutrients and outputs waste – like an artificial body for the meat to grow in.
Here the cells proliferate exponentially, to laterbe harvested. In about 9 weeks, this process transforms a tiny group of cells to an edible chunk of meat. A plethora of food items can be formed with the resulting meat, from patties to sausages with or without other ingredients added for texture. Mosa Meat, a Dutch cell-based meat start up, claims that one tissue sample from a cow can yield enough muscle tissue to make 80,000 quarter-pound burgers.
Currently, there are dozens of lab-grown meat start-ups across the world, all racing to be the first ones to become commercially viable. However, none of them have yet perfected the recipe. First they must overcome a number of barriers if they are to enter the market.
The first one is texture. In 2013, the world got to watch the first live cell-based meat taste test televised on BBC News, which reported “There’s quite some intense taste. It’s close to meat. It’s not that juicy”. This is because conventional meat has a variety of cell types, including both fat and muscle, from which it derives its meaty characteristics, and trying to replicate this remains a challenging factor that companies have to resolve. Also, structured meat (ie. steak, tuna fish) is a lot harder to replicate than ground meat, as the former requires nutrients to be delivered to the cells at the centre of the meat, like blood vessels do in an animal’s body. Scientists estimate that we are at least a decade away from a flawless replica of a real steak.
And then, there’s the “yuck” factor. In a 2016 survey, 65.5% of Americans said they weren’t interested in regularly eating lab-grown meat. One reason for this could be the terminology. In many languages, the actual source of the meat is camouflaged in the names given to describe them, making those animals easier to eat, such as how we disguise cow as beef and pig as pork. So it’s possible that cell-based meat just has a naming problem. “Lab-grown”, “Test-tube” and “in vitro” don’t sound particularly appetizing. This is why these cell-based companies are fighting for names such as “cultured”, “clean” and “cell-based”.
However, certain people remain actively opposed to the concept. In 2018, Missouri became the first state in the US to establish a law which prohibits “misrepresenting a product as meat that is not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry”, punishable by up to a year in prison.
There’s also the cultural aspect of meat – for some, it is more than just the taste of an animal. Meat is an identity. It’s tradition. It’s been engraved in many cultures for over a millenia, so for some to make the transition from the conventional to the unconventional may be a challenging, time-consuming task.
If cell-based companies are able to overcome these barriers, cultured meat can be the sustainable solution to the world’s growing appetite for meat. According to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, producing 1kg of meat requires between 5,000 and 20,000 litres of water. Lab-grown meat, however, requires approximately 82-96% less water,according to a study published by Environmental Science and Technology. It requires 7-45% less energy , 78-96% reduced GHG emissions and 99% less land use, depending on the product compared. Conventional meat is also the least efficient way to feed people – for every 100g of plant protein fed to a cow, only 4g ends up as protein in the resulting beef.
The price of producing cultured meat is also expected to fall dramatically by 2021, according to Mosa Meat and Spain-based food technology company Biotech Foods. The first lab-grown beef burger was created in 2013 by Mosa Meat’s Dutch co-founder Mark Post, which cost $333,000 to make. Since then, production costs have dropped by 99.997% to just $10 a burger, with potential to become cheaper than a traditional burger.
Ultimately, the consumer decides if this pioneering technology is here to. Nonetheless one thing is certain – technology enabled us to eat animals the way we do today, and new technology might be the only method that can satisfy our craving for meat in the future. If food technology companies can successfully create cultured meat that resembles conventional meat in taste, texture and price, then this will change the way we eat meat in the future, and as Paul Cuatrecasas said, will be “the next major revolution” in the world.
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