cultured meat

From petri dish to dinner plate: is cultured meat the future of food?

By now, most of us know that we need to stop eating as much meat. As a known carcinogen, ecological drain and a big animal rights issue, there are a number of reasons that explain why we are encouraged to reduce our intake.

But what if we didn’t have to reduce the amount of meat we eat? What if science could solve our problems? What if cultured meat grown in a lab could allow us to carry on as normal, whilst simultaneously reducing the negative ecological and health impact that meat carries?

Some people have suggested that the development of cultured meat could provide the answer. Like most major technological advances in recent years, lab grown meat is being primarily developed in Silicon Valley — though advances are being made outside of the bubble too, with the Netherlands producing many of the most groundbreaking products. From foie gras, to fish, to hamburgers, we are already producing meat through cellular agriculture that doesn’t involve conventional farming methods.

There are, however, important questions that need answering. Is lab grown meat actually healthy? Is it better for the environment? And can it be scaled to meet the needs of a world that is eating more meat than ever? The FAO estimates that by 2050 meat demand will increase by 173%. So something clearly needs to be done.

As part of the science trends in 2018 series, we’re taking a deep dive to question whether cultured meat really is the future of food.

The development of lab grown meat

The hunger for lab grown meat isn’t as new as you might expect. Despite its high-tech, pseudo- dystopian reputation, the idea of growing animals in a lab reaches as far back as 1931. Surprisingly, it was Winston Churchill who first publicly flagged the idea.

We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts under a suitable medium

Winston Churchill
It wasn’t until 2013 that people had the chance to consider cultured meat as a genuine alternative to farmed meat. On August 5th 2013 the world’s first lab-grown stem cell burger — made by a team of scientists headed up by Dr. Mark Post from Maastricht University — was tasted by world press in London. Though food critics were impressed, the fact that the burger cost $330,000 suggested that it wouldn’t be a product we’d likely see on supermarket shelves anytime soon.

Futuristic though it may have seemed, costs suggested that it was a science experiment rather than a genuine alternative to conventionally farmed meat. Since that date there has been significant progress in the realm of cultured meat. So much so that it is predicted we could see lab grown meat in our supermarkets before the year is out. Whether that happens is debatable, but a future with lab grown meat seems closer than ever.

The case for a more eco-friendly meat

One of the big reasons why we need to consume less meat is the negative impact it has on the environment. It has been suggested that lab grown meat is could help solve this problem.

Memphis Meats, one of the biggest players in the world of cultured meat, suggest that if the US switched to its product, the greenhouse gas reduction would be equivalent to taking 23 million cars off the road. Meanwhile, a 2011 study found that growing meat in labs would reduce water consumption by 90%, and land use by 99%. All pretty positive, especially when considering that livestock alone are responsible for 14.5% of all emissions worldwide according to the FOA of the UN.

What isn’t fully understood, however, is the amount of energy it would take to mass produce lab grown meat. Whilst you would imagine energy use would be reduced, the one study that has considered the impact of lab grown meat doesn’t show this to be the case. This study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, revealed the opposite. Whilst cultured meat is the least land intensive, it is exceptionally energy intensive — more so than cattle farming.

There are mixed messages surrounding how eco-friendly lab grown meat is. It is clear that in terms of water and land consumption, it is better for the planet than farmed meat. On the other hand, energy use is higher than imagined. It is important to stress that only one real study has been done, however, and with further efficiency saving when scaling up production, energy use could potentially decrease.

Is lab grown meat healthier than normal meat?

If we are going to move towards a future where lab meat features as a key part of culinary life, products need to not just be better for the climate, they need to be healthy. The research so far has produced results that are on the whole pretty positive, but there are still issues.

On the positive side, cultured meat is produced in a lab environment, which means that there is no dangerous bacteria that could negatively impact the product. There is also a lack of growth hormones and antibiotic resistant bacteria — both of which are sometimes present in farmed animals, and both of which are a risk to human health. Another positive is heme iron can be removed from the meat, which is known to increase the risk of breast and colon cancer. It is also possible to remove saturated fat — a big cause of bad cholesterol and a known contributor to heart disease.

But there are still issues that haven’t sufficiently been addressed. Carcinogenic compounds such as nitrates are much harder to remove. For lab grown meat to remain looking like meat, nitrates are necessary. So unless we are happy to eat food that barely resembles a burger or a sausage, the bad nitrates remain. There are also problems around heterocyclic aromatic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, both of which are present in lab grown meat, and both of  which are said to cause DNA damage.

This level of processing and chemicals will not be great news for health conscious people. In the UK, organic food consumption is on the rise, as is vegetarianism. Lab grown meat doesn’t tick either box. Nor will it tempt the rapidly growing number of vegans, who have grown 360% over  the past 10 years. In light of this, it’s worth questioning if we need lab grown meat at all — maybe we’ll all be plant-based by the time cultured meat is widely accessible?

To meat or not to meat

With the monumental rise of vegetarianism and veganism — in the western world at least — will people actually want to consume cultured meat? In a recent survey done by the Vegetarian Society, 72% of vegetarians stated that they would never eat lab grown meat. Lab grown meat finds itself in a tough position.

For those who adhere to a plant-based diet, lab grown meat is neither vegetarian or vegan. And for omnivores, it isn’t real meat. Persuading people to convert may prove to be difficult. In a recent survey 65% of people said that they would try lab grown meat given the chance. Trying is one thing, changing a lifestyle is another. Plenty of omnivores eat vegetarian food on a regular basis, but they still don’t convert to vegetarianism.

Another point worth considering is the pushback that meat grown from stem cells will likely  receive by the media. Consider the recent backlash in France against calling plant-based  products that resemble meat such as vegetarian sausages and burgers. Meanwhile in the US, the
 
US Cattlemen’s Association filed a petition with the US government to try and stop cultured meat being sold as a meat product.

Ultimately it comes down to whether the public is willing to accept lab grown meat as a genuine alternative. For some it will always be too dystopian. To others it will be the product that allows them to eat as much meat as they like. But when evaluating the lack of information we have in terms of health and environmental impact, perhaps it’s too soon to definitively say that cultured meat really is the future.

The future of food

One thing is for sure, the future of food will be a product of scientific development. Whether that  be improved plant-based alternatives to meat, lab grown meat, or new products entirely, the need to create a more sustainable agriculture will lead us into realms we’ve not yet considered.

Take Notco for example — a company that markets itself as “the beginning of a new era of food.” Using an AI computer called Giuseppe, it looks for patterns in a food’s molecular structure and recreates them using plant-based ingredients. With machine learning, Giuseppe will be able to increasingly understand the links between molecules and flavours to create new products. For now, Notco markets three types of eggless mayonnaise. In the future, who knows what products   it can produce.

It’s not just food either. Ava Winery is revolutionising wine making, producing digitised products without grapes that imitate the very best bottles of wine using amino acids, sugar and ethanol. As with every technology that changes the way we produce the products that are intrinsic to our culture, there are critics. Many tasters, however, have responded positively, and the company has major plans to produce world-leading wines for the mass market, at genuinely affordable prices.

Whatever the future holds, the science lab is going to play a huge part in the food and drink we consume in the future. Our world population is growing exponentially. As is the demand for meat- based products. Lab grown meat may be held back by some doubts about its ecological and health credentials at the moment, but its rapid development post-2013 suggests that we could be at the start of a culinary revolution.
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