As the world population increases to 10 billion, predictions indicate that the demand for meat products will surge by up to 88%. The high demand for meat production puts pressure on the food industry to find sustainable ways to feed the growing population. However, relying on the current approach of using 27% of the world’s cultivable land to raise livestock is highly unimpactful. Therefore, lab-grown meat has been developed to address this issue as a more sustainable alternative for meat production. It is a way to satiate the rising demand for meat without causing deforestation, soil erosion, and water pollution. Several measures have been taken to address the environmental crises caused by traditional meat production. However, those measures may not be enough to tackle the environmental impact of the meat industry. That is why alternative approaches, such as cultured meat, are gaining increasing attention.
What is cultured meat?
Cultured or lab-grown meat is produced by replicating animal cells in a laboratory. The product of cultured meat is almost indistinguishable from conventional meat, but it doesn’t involve the slaughter of animals.
This lab-grown meat is created by initially extracting stem cells from a living animal without harming it. This extraction uses local anaesthesia, which provides relief from any pain the animal may experience. The animal may feel slight discomfort, similar to a routine blood test. The harvested cells are then placed in bioreactors and mixed with a nutrient-rich solution, allowing them to grow and multiply into muscle tissue. Scientists shape the tissue into edible “scaffoldings”, which offer structural support and allow tissue development. Then, it is possible to transform these tissues into various meat products such as steak, chicken nuggets, hamburger patties, or salmon sashimi. The final product is a cut of meat that one can cook in many ways without requiring animal slaughter.
Since when has cultured meat been in the picture?
The concept of cultured meat dates back to the 1930s, but it wasn’t until 2001 that the first lab-grown meat burger was created. Jason Matheny popularised the idea of cultured meat in the early 2000s after co-authoring a paper on its production. He founded New Harvest, the world’s first nonprofit organisation dedicated to in-vitro meat research. Since then, several companies and organisations have been working to create viable lab-grown meat products.
In 2013, Mark Post created the world’s first cultured meat hamburger patty, made from tissue grown outside of an animal. Subsequently, other cultured meat prototypes have received widespread media coverage. For instance, SuperMeat, an Israeli startup, launched a restaurant in Tel Aviv called “The Chicken” to evaluate consumers’ reception of its “chicken” burger. Finally, in December 2020, the world’s first commercial sale of cell-cultured meat occurred in a Singapore restaurant. At this exclusive restaurant, Eat Just, a US firm which reached unicorn status in 2016, sold its lab-grown meat.
Which parts of the world have embraced cultured meat?
While it’s only available in a few countries, including Singapore, it has sparked interest and investment in other countries, such as the United States, Israel, the Netherlands, and Japan. Israel, in particular, has taken on mass production of cultured meat and opened several factories to facilitate this. The country is also looking into 3D-printed meat, with which it is possible to use plant-based ingredients. Aleph Farms is a company that already provides 3D-printed astronaut food for zero-gravity environments. As technology improves and becomes more available, more countries may incorporate lab-grown meat into their diets.
Cultured meat also has a lot of potential in India due to the country’s high demand for meat and environmental challenges related to traditional livestock farming. The technology is still in its initial stages and faces regulatory and cultural barriers. However, the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and the National Research Centre on Meat are partnering to produce ‘ahimsa meat,’ slaughter-free meat grown from stem cells. The Indian government is also funding further projects to develop this lab-grown meat. Cultured meat may be available in India from 2025 onwards.
The sustainable solution
Unlike conventionally produced meat, creating cultured meat requires replicating animal tissue in a lab. This process does away with the requirements of extensive resources, land, and water that animal agriculture needs. Thus, lab-grown meat is a significant sustainable solution. According to a study by the University of Oxford, cultured meat could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 96% and land use by up to 99%, compared to conventionally-produced meat.
Cultured meat also eliminates the need for the mass use of antibiotics and hormones, which can negatively affect human health. Such chemical substances contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Lab-grown meat reduces this risk. Furthermore, it avoids the ethical concerns of animal welfare associated with animal agriculture. Even zoonotic diseases become a less likely possibility.
Cultured meat is gaining traction as a sustainable and ethical alternative to traditional meat, with investors, consumers, and policymakers taking notice. Restaurants in a few countries have already started serving cultured meat. Policymakers are also recognising the potential of cultured meat. The European Parliament has called for a regulatory framework in the EU to determine its prospects. In addition, the US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration has announced plans to jointly regulate the industry in the US. This growing interest suggests that lab-grown meat may be vital in addressing sustainability and environmental challenges in the food industry.
As more countries explore and invest in lab-grown meat, its acceptance as a viable alternative to conventionally produced meat products looks inevitable.
Challenges facing the cultured meat industry
Although cultured meat has the potential to complement or even replace traditional meat, it is still in its early stages, where some challenges are becoming noticeable. One major challenge is the high production costs of lab-grown meat. Producing meat by extracting stem cells from living animals is still relatively new and requires expensive equipment and resources. As a result, the cost of producing cultured meat is much higher than that of traditional meat. These high costs are a significant barrier for many startups.
One more factor to consider is the scale of production. Traditional meat production in the US alone amounts to approximately 100 million pounds of red meat per week. At the same time, lab-grown meat is only being produced at a rate of a few thousand pounds every two weeks. There is a significant discrepancy between the two. It is necessary to address this gap before lab-grown meat can effectively compete with traditional meat production methods.
Lastly, as with any new technology, there have been some adverse reactions to lab-grown meat. Some people are concerned about its safety and health implications. Alternately, others question its taste and texture. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a sense of reluctance among people to try new foods. Scientists are constantly trying to improve the quality of cultured meat and meet people’s expectations. Nevertheless, it might still take time before lab-grown meat becomes a commonplace dietary choice.
What will the future look like?
Despite the challenges facing the cultured meat industry, it has much potential. As production costs continue decreasing and technology improves, lab-grown meat will likely become more competitive with traditional meat. Additionally, as consumer attitudes shift towards more sustainable and ethical food production methods, there is likely to be an increasing demand for cultured meat.
To successfully develop and implement lab-grown meat, involving and consulting with all parties, including consumers, producers, regulators, and civil society organisations, is necessary. Essentially, widespread ethical acceptance, especially among younger generations, is still required. However, especially with ongoing research and development, cultured meat does appear to be able to provide an altogether better source of meat for the future.