Once the pioneer of lab-grown meat, the Netherlands has since lost its head start in the field due to legal and cultural hurdles. However, in recent months, the Dutch House of Representatives passed a resolution to allow the tasting of cultured meat under controlled conditions, a mandatory measure to gain approval by the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA). The government is also to invest 60 million euros in cellular agriculture in order to regain its position in the budding industry described as the “next major revolution” equivalent to moving from horse and cart to the automobile. Securing a local and sustainable protein alternative is more crucial than ever, with threats from climate change, the war in Ukraine, and the pandemic disrupting the food supply chain.
For those who do not know, cultured meat (also referred to as lab-grown meat, in-vitro meat, clean meat, artificial meat, cultivated or cell-based meat) is produced from cultivating animal stem cells in a bioreactor via cell-culturing technologies. The resulting product is a thin layer of muscle fibers that is processed into minced meat. A single tissue sample from an animal can make an almost limitless number of burger patties.
Benefits of cultured meat
The food sector is a vast network of farmers and businesses that supply food to the world’s population and is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Sustainability has become increasingly intertwined with food production, distribution, packaging, and consumption. The agriculture industry alone is responsible for 26 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, of which 60 percent can be attributed to livestock production. Acquiring cultured meat does not require the slaughter of livestock. Therefore, has lower land-use requirements and less pressure to convert forests to agricultural land, thus, helping to protect biodiversity and animal welfare. According to Hanna Tuomisto, a Finnish researcher, “cultured meat could have a 96% lower carbon footprint than beef and 82% lower footprint than poultry.” She also states that cultured meat has the potential to improve food security by providing a stable and sustainable protein supply. Another benefit is to human health; in controlled conditions, the meat is “cleaner” and free of antibiotics, hormones, and diseases such as salmonella. Currently, cultured meat is an innovation that startups hope will become a key driver toward sustainability, lowering negative environmental impact while upholding animal welfare and protecting public health.
Obstacles to commercial availability of cultured meat
The cellular agriculture industry faces two main constraints: technological and consumer acceptance. The biggest obstacle currently is on the supply side: the technology simply is not there yet. In addition, the regulation surrounding cultured meat production is still relatively new and a challenge to companies. In Europe, the regulation process of novel foods takes around 18 months. In the US, it takes longer. Market entry is impossible to predict because it requires more financial investment and appropriate expertise, and there is a lack of transparency from startups. With 170 startups globally, some have already indicated the commercial availability of cultured meat in 2022. However, the first products sold commercially will likely be a hybrid of lab-grown and plant-based meat. The wait for a fully cultured steak might take a decade or two. Some experts say that by 2040, 60% of meat consumed will be lab-grown or made from plant alternatives.
Lab-grown chicken nuggets sold in Singapore (source: Eat Just)
Global development of cultured meat
As of today, the only country that has approved the sale of lab-grown meat is Singapore. Since the end of 2020, restaurant 1880 has been selling lab-grown chicken nuggets for 17 dollars for a set meal in Singapore. The company responsible for the chicken nuggets is a Californian startup called Eat Just. There has been a push in the US to further develop the cultivated meat industry with a promise to build the world’s largest bioreactors. Such vats could supply tens of thousands of restaurants and shops.
There are also a number of Israeli and European startups, especially in the Netherlands, where the roots of cell-cultivated meat can be traced back. The Dutch researcher Willem van Eelen pioneered cell-cultivated meat in the 1990s. In addition, the first lab-grown burger tasted by food experts was made by a Dutch startup in 2013. The company, Mosa Meat, sees the current funding by the Dutch government as an opportunity to grow the industry and inform more people about it. The UK also has an opportunity to become a leader in cultured meat production with its post-Brexit regulatory framework. “The UK is a large market, and every company will be looking at it as an incredible commercial opportunity,” said an executive for Mosa Meat. With all the recent funding, investments, and hype cultured meat has received, its arrival on supermarket shelves seems imminent.
Would you eat cultured meat?
Another obstacle that the industry has to address is on the demand side. Would you be comfortable with eating meat grown in a laboratory? According to a Dutch study, 9% of participants rejected the idea of lab-grown meat, and two-thirds were hesitant. Some people see cultured meat as being unnatural. However, today’s meat is far from natural either; animals are bred to grow as large and as fast as possible and are pumped with antibiotics and hormones.
Data shows that total meat production has quadrupled in the past 50 years and continues to grow with the increasing population. Even though plant-based meat alternatives have gone mainstream, in line with current nutritional guidance on cutting down meat consumption, the global demand for meat proceeds to increase. As not everyone is willing to give up meat or they see plant-based alternatives as an inferior imitation, cultured meat could be the solution. A large-scale shift toward cultured meat production could help alleviate human, environmental, and animal suffering. The questions yet to be determined are “will we grow to accept lab-grown meat?” and “when will it arrive to address these urgent issues?”
Additional investment in developing cultured meat technologies and gaining wider consumer acceptance is essential for the industry. A developed cellular agriculture industry could revolutionize our food system. It could provide us with possibilities for further experimentation with our food, such as producing hybrid foods or creating more nutritious meats. More importantly, cultured meat secures our threatened food supply chain by offering local and sustainable protein production that can be adopted worldwide.