What you need to know about cultured meat
Cultured Meat. Cultured Meat. Meat from the lab. Cell-Based Meat. Whatever you call it, the newest alternative protein supplement is having a little moment. In recent months, Singapore’s government has been treating VIP guests to cultured meats at COP27, lab-raised chicken has cleared its first hurdle with the US Food and Drug Administration, and a landmark global deal to protect biodiversity has brought new pressure to reconsider , such as beef, pork, chicken and seafood are produced.
Proponents of cultured meat say it could be a response to rising agricultural emissions, declining biodiversity and alarming food insecurity, while critics fear cultured meat’s high cost, coupled with its regulatory hurdles and unproven scalability, is making it a major hype for now do. Everyone agrees that many questions remain unanswered.
For now, here’s what we know about the present and potential future of meat grown in a lab.
What is cultured meat?
Cultured or cultured meat is made by harvesting cells from living animals, “feeding” the cells nutrients so they can grow in a bioreactor, and converting the result into a product that the consumer can eat.
Take Fishmaw for example. The swim bladder of a fish is considered a delicacy in many Asian countries. To create a lab-grown version of croaker fish maws, Hong Kong scientists at Avant Meats place fish cells in a culture medium containing dozens of different nutrients and store them in a bioreactor connected to an oxygen tank.
Within a few weeks, these cells multiply into tissues the size of a grain of rice, which can then be assembled into larger pieces.
The science behind cultured meat isn’t that new cell cultures were first used in medical research in 1907, but the application of this idea to meat gained traction after a Dutch pharmacologist presented the world’s first cell-based vitro hamburger on TV in 2013.
Today, more than 100 companies around the world are trying to make cell-based protein ranging from lab-grown lamb to lab-grown oysters to lab-grown foie gras.
However, different proteins lead to different complications: producers of cell-based seafood, for example, don’t have the advantage that medical research offers to those culturing mammalian cells. And meat composed of more complex tissue and texture can be more difficult to construct, a process known as “scaffolding” that holds muscle, fat and connective tissue together to restore meat structure.
How is cultured meat different from plant-based meat?
Plant-based meat refers to meat made from soy or other non-meat ingredients. Impossible Foods Inc. and Beyond Meat Inc. are two of the better known companies that produce plant-based meat products.
Cultured meat, on the other hand, is produced by directly cultivating animal cells. It has exactly the same nutritional value as conventionally produced beef, pork, poultry and seafood, although both plant-based and cell-based meats still perfect the flavor and texture.
The other big difference between plant-based and cultured protein is availability. According to an estimate by the Good Food Institute Asia Pacific, plant-based meat is still struggling to achieve steady price parity with regular meat and accounts for less than 1% of the global market, but it is sold in restaurants and grocery stores around the world.
Currently, the commercial sale of lab-grown meat is legal only in Singapore, a country of 5 million that is focused on drastically reducing its reliance on food imports.
Experts say that won’t change anytime soon. Scaling cultured protein production from a pilot phase to a commercial level will require technological advances, say industry observers, and massive bioreactors required for mass production do not yet exist.
Regulatory hurdles also remain. In the US, the FDA recently told Upside Foods that it had no questions about the safety of the company’s cell-based chicken for human consumption, but the California-based startup still needs other approvals, including from the US Department of Agriculture, which is jointly overseeing the launch of cultured meat.
Elsewhere, policymakers in China, Israel and the Netherlands have signaled support for cell-based meat, but none have approved commercial sale.
Can vegetarians eat cultured meat?
Technically, cultured meat isn’t vegan or vegetarian: it’s made from growing cells from real animals. But people become vegetarians for a variety of reasons, ranging from concerns about animal rights to fears about the use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock farming. Many vegetarians avoid meat in order not to deplete the environment’s resources. On some of these fronts, cell-based meat could be a viable alternative. “If you think taking anything from an animal, including a cell, is exploitative, then you won’t be [eating cultivated meat],” says Sonalie Figueiras, founder of sustainability website Green Queen [animal] suffered, you would probably eat it.”
Is Farmed Protein Better for the Environment?
Cell-based meat can play a crucial role in restoring biodiversity, which has long been threatened by traditional agriculture. For example, consider that clearing land for livestock is responsible for about 80% of deforestation in the Amazon.
But when it comes to the climate impact of grown protein, the answer isn’t that simple.
Growing meat from cells in bioreactors uses far less land than traditional farming and avoids many of the emissions associated with cow burps, for example. It could also allow companies to produce meat closer to their consumers, reducing the amount of fuel needed to deliver groceries.
However, growing meat in bioreactors requires significant amounts of electricity, especially on a large scale.
This makes cultured protein a viable option for reducing emissions only when its production is powered by wind, sun and other renewable energy sources. According to a 2021 study by Dutch environmental consultancy CE Delft, cell-based beef can emit 92% less carbon dioxide than conventional beef when produced with renewable energy.
In the same study, the CO2 emissions of breeding pigs and broilers were determined to be 52% and 17% lower than the emissions of their farmed counterparts, respectively.
What’s “wrong” with cultured protein?
Most of the doubts about cultured protein have to do with its limitations: it’s still very expensive to produce right now, making it hard to imagine widespread sale even with regulatory approval in the near future.
In fact, almost a decade after the world’s first cultured vitro burger was made at a phenomenal price of $325,000, the only commercially available cultured meat is sold in small batches in Singapore and made by San Francisco-based Eat Just. The company says it will take eight years for its products to be cost-competitive with regular meat.
Transparency was also a point of contention. Jaydee Hanson, policy director at the nonprofit Center for Food Safety in Washington DC, says cultured protein manufacturers rarely disclose how they keep cells growing.
This can sometimes reveal problematic processes and raise new ethical questions, such as using the blood of unborn calves as a medium for cell cultures. (However, some manufacturers of cultured proteins strive to eliminate all animal-derived production materials.)
Then there are the more mundane but equally important challenges: appearance, texture and taste. On a November evening at the Four Seasons in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, a dozen COP27 attendees ate grilled chicken thighs with mushroom rice, a dish made with Eat Just cell-based chicken. The starter was met with mixed results. “It has the look [of chicken]’ commented one guest. “I can definitely say it’s not chicken,” noted another. “It’s too smooth.”
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/agri-business/agri-food/what-you-need-to-know-about-cultivated-meat-42263990.html What you need to know about cultured meat