One of the big questions facing humanity right now is how to feed a global population with a growing demand for meat, without destroying the planet in the process.
The future of food was on the agenda of WebSummit in Lisbon this month, and executives from two cultured meat companies detailed to Euronews Next why lab-grown meat may hold the answer.
What their companies – and dozens of others – have demonstrated is that it’s possible to take a small sample of cells from an animal, and from that sample, grow meat in a lab. without the need to raise, rear or kill the animal.
The process was first demonstrated to a global audience nearly a decade ago, when the first lab-grown burger was eaten at a press conference in London.
And just this week, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared the sale of lab-grown chicken for human consumption, following the example of Singapore, the first country to do so in 2020.
“You can’t innovate on a cow”
If humanity is to achieve the climate goals discussed this month at COP27, innovation and change will be needed in the animal agriculture industry.
But as Daan Luining, co-founder and CTO of lab-grown meat company Meatable, told Web Summit: “You can’t innovate on a cow.”
Instead, he calls for more support for the growth of innovation in meat without slaughter.
Luining, who has been in the field for nine years with a background in cellular molecular biology and tissue engineering, helped make the first lab-grown burger in 2013.
His company is developing a minced pork product, with minced beef also in the works – and they hope to launch their first product in Singapore next year.
Is cultured meat the future of meat?
Lab-grown meat advocates point to three key issues around animal agriculture, as it stands, that need to be addressed.
First, the environmental impact is huge, accounting for around 14.5% of all carbon emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). There is also pressure on the resources needed to produce beef.
For example, about 25 kg of dry food is needed to make one kilogram of cow meat, and that same kilogram requires about 15,000 liters of water, according to the Water Footprint Network.
Some studies suggested that replacing traditionally farmed animal meat with lab-grown meat could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 96%.
Then there is the ethical consideration. Some 80 billion animals are killed each year for human consumption, and many of these animals are kept in poor conditions.
Many are not slaughtered in a ‘humane’ manner – defined by the Humane Slaughter Association in the UK, for example, as when ‘an animal is protected from avoidable excitement, pain or suffering’.
And thirdly, there is the issue of food security. Many countries do not have the space or natural resources to raise animals to meet their population’s demand for meat and rely instead on imports.
Europe “on the sidelines”
So why has cultured meat not yet taken off in Europe?
Luining told Euronews Next he found it “outrageous” that the continent was “just standing on the sidelines”.
When asked why his company was launching its products for the first time in Singapore, he replied: “The EU is at the bottom of the priority list because it takes so long.” “As a start-up, we can’t afford that,” he added.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) regulates the industry and there are strict criteria for a new product to be approved for sale in the bloc. Luining explained that the process requires a lot of back-and-forth and he felt frustrated with the regulator’s lack of clarity.
“They’re not very enthusiastic about starting the conversation and helping us understand what they really want from us,” he said.
On the other hand, he said that the authorities in Singapore “have set up a whole body of government to help [us] and have been fantastic. Surely the European Union could take note of this”.
The company will gauge what customers in Singapore think of its lab-grown meat and may eventually use that experience to expand into other markets, such as Europe.
This meat at the moment is ground pork, which can be processed into a variety of products such as sausages or dumplings.
The technology — and costs — behind lab-grown meat
Due to the current state of technology, ground meat is what most companies in this industry currently manufacture.
Such is the case with Ivy Farm, a UK-based cultured meat company that makes minced pork.
“Our technology can identify cells that we can grow outside the animal, basically in large fermentation tanks,” CEO Richard Dillon told Euronews Next.
“And by making them grow, they reproduce. We then create pure muscle, pure fat, and we can put them together to make the healthiest ground meat.”
The company spun off from Oxford University, where two of the original co-founders were based.
“They were looking at where there was the most research on animal mammal culture,” Dillon said.
“And in fact, they are humans. But the mammal that people eat that is closest to humans in terms of biology is the pig. And so it was very convenient,” he explained.
“Secondly, from a business perspective, chicken and pork are the most consumed meats on Earth. So the size of the market and the impacts it could have globally are huge.”
But while the potential market is there, one of the biggest barriers to bringing cultured meat to supermarket shelves — aside from regulations — is cost.
“No one has ever grown mammalian cells on a large scale that would be needed to reduce the cost of feeding people,” Dillon said.
The industry needs to prove it can scale, procuring the large reservoirs and the materials needed to grow the cells inside, he said.
“It basically has to go through reinventing that supply chain to get those inputs at scale at a food-grade cost instead of a biopharmaceutical cost.”
He said great progress has been made since the demonstration of the first lab-grown burger. This burger cost around €250,000 to produce.
“We could do the equivalent now for less than $100 (€100). And we are still at a very small pilot scale. So it will be orders of magnitude with a drop in costs over the next two years.”