Food from a lab or a plant: Is the future of meat fake and slaughter-free?
It sounds like a contradiction — but the meat you eat in the future might come from a plant, or a laboratory, eliminating the need to slaughter animals.
“Clean meat”, including meat grown from stem cells in laboratories — is growing in popularity and possibility.
The emerging industry is being fuelled by Silicon Valley start-ups, billionaire venture capitalists, Hollywood actors and even some of the world’s largest traditional meat processors.
Australian scientists now want their own “steak” in the game, but the rapid pace the industry is progressing has upset the global livestock sector, who worry their industry is facing a new rival.
Lab grown meat 100 years in the making now a ‘decade away’
When former British prime minister Winston Churchill wrote of an imagined future, he predicted meat grown in laboratories would help feed the world.
“We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium,” he wrote in his 1931 article Fifty Years Hence.
His prediction was only about 30 years off, but while scientists have successfully been growing meat in a lab since 2013, it’s still not commercially available.
There are now about ten companies globally in a race to produce lab-grown meat for the masses.
One such company, JUST, claimed it could have product on the shelves by the end of 2018, however meat expert Professor Robyn Warner from the University of Melbourne says it’s unlikely.
“I don’t think we will ever get to replicating a whole steak or lamb chop, although I’m happy to be proven wrong.
“At the moment we can replicate a ground meat product, like a hamburger, but meat is a complex structure comprised of muscle cells, embedded within connective tissue which has capillaries and blood vessels and fat cells, and the flavour of meat comes from 750 compounds.”
Most cultured meat products are made from muscle fibres only, not fat or blood cells. They then rely on colourings and flavours to make them more meaty in taste and appearance.
In March an international lobby group called the Cellular Agriculture Society launched, to help organise the cellular agriculture sector and give it legitimacy.
Its CEO and founder, Kristopher Gasteratos, said the cultured meat start-ups he works with are trying to address those compound issues.
“By the time clean meat is commercialised, at least fat and connective tissue will be there. I think the companies know this to be a necessity for biomimicry, although I’m not sure about blood cells,” he said.
Mr Gasteratos said growing meat in laboratories is the second agriculture revolution, and that like vegans or vegetarians, people who only eat cultured meat will even have their own title — “Neomnivores”.
Associate Professor Jason White from the University of Melbourne makes lab-grown meat on a small scale, for research purposes, and said the ability to mass produce it is the main barrier to a revolution.
Cost is the challenge. The first lab grown burger patty, made by Dutch scientist Mark Post in 2013, cost around $AU400,000 to produce.
Silicon Valley start-up Memphis Meats, who last year claimed to have made duck and chicken meat from stem cells, said it now costs $AU6,000 to make 1 kilogram of meat.
Mr Gasteratos said some people will be prepared to pay high prices for it in the short term, until a mass produced product is possible.
“By 2020 or so we could imagine select markets and high price tags for commercial clean beef, but if we’re talking mass markets, this would most certainly be closer to 2025.”
One reason the price is so high is because the nutrient mix that the stem cells feed on in the growing process is expensive.
The mix contains a serum known as Foetal Bovine Serum (FBS), which is made from the blood of an unborn calf. The foetus dies in the extraction process.
“We are slowly trying to move away from that, it is expensive to put all those components into that mixture,” Associate Professor Jason White said.
There are synthetic versions made from plants, but FBS is more productive because of it’s universal growth medium status, meaning it can be used to grow almost any cell.
It means for now, making lab-grown meat is not only expensive, but also ironically still involves killing an animal.
While the cultured meat sector is being fuelled by American and European start-ups, an Australian non-for-profit organisation is supporting scientists in the Asia-Pacific who want a bite of the industry.
Food Frontier is funded by philanthropists, who think growing meat in a lab will help the environment, by reducing the amount of land under agriculture, and cutting methane emissions from livestock.
The CSIRO says livestock farming could represent up to 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, while the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation says farming accounts for 70 per cent of global fresh water use.
A study by the University of Oxford found a viable clean meat industry, when compared to traditional farming, could result in up to 96 per cent lower greenhouse gas emissions, 96 per cent less water and between 7 and 45 per cent less energy.
“If we can offer the same satisfaction with eating a meat product, and the same type of nutritional benefit, and feel good about it because it’s doing good for the world, why wouldn’t people choose that option?” Mr King said.
However, some experts say a commercial cultured meat industry could have unknown adverse impacts.
“It is going to be an energy intensive process just from the equipment that’s going to be required and the production of those nutrient mixes, more than traditional livestock farming absolutely,” Professor White said.
CAS’s Kristopher Gasteratos countered that, arguing it is a cost-versus-benefit scenario, “so even if it’s more energy intensive, what about the water reduction, land reduction, less animals killed?” he said.
“No revolutionary technology or idea is perfect, but finding one problem is no reason to cast away something conceptually.”
Given that cellular agriculture as a field of science is still in it’s infancy, there aren’t many experts who can properly assess its impact.
Regardless, the investment dollars keep flowing faster than impartial researchers can often keep up.
Last year, billionaire venture capitalists like Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and Virgin’s Richard Branson, invested undisclosed amounts into Memphis Meats.
“Put simply, there’s no way to produce enough meat for 9 billion people (by 2050). Yet we can’t ask everyone to become vegetarians. That’s why we need more options for producing meat without depleting our resources,” Bill Gates wrote on his blog.
International agriculture conglomerate Cargill Inc has also invested in Memphis Meats, and earlier this year, one of America’s largest beef producers, Tyson Foods, chipped in as well.
“I think it’s really exciting to see meat giants like Cargills and Tyson’s investing in plant-based and clean meat technology, it’s a broadening of their thinking around the protein sector,” Mr King said.
The bleeding edge of plant-based meat
The growing demand for plant-based meat alternatives that are already commercially available is giving confidence to a cultured meat industry still trying to find its feet.
Advances in food technology mean companies like Silicon Valley start-up Impossible Foods have been able to produce plant-based burgers that bleed fake blood that browns when cooked.
Dean Epps, the general manger of Life Health Foods (the largest producer of meat alternatives in Australia) — said demand for products like that in Australia is growing too.
“We are playing around with that technology as well, so I don’t think it’s too far away from seeing an Australian-based manufacture with that,” he said.
While 11 per cent of Australians don’t eat meat, Mr Epps said he believes the demand is coming from traditional meat eaters who want to reduce their animal intake.
In the US recent studies have shown 60 per cent of Americans are reducing their meat intake, even if they aren’t strictly vegan or vegetarian.
In Sydney’s Newtown, so called “vegan butcher” Suzy Spoon said she has noticed that shift too, and puts it down to consumers becoming more aware of where their food comes from.
“I think in the last five years the amount of vegans and vegetarians has grown so much because of the internet, because seeing (livestock farming) can be confronting for people,” she said.
“It is definitely what is driving this industry.”
Ms Spoon produces a range of products designed to look and taste like meat, including schnitzel and bacon, because she wants people to still have meat experiences.
“People don’t just give up meat because they hate the taste and texture, they might give up meat because they love animals and care about the environment, or their health”.
Farmers fear a fake food future
Last month, France banned the use of “meat” and “dairy” related words from vegan and vegetarian food labels and reserved them for products of animal origin.
Labelling like “vegetarian sausage”, “vegan bacon”, and even “almond milk” are now forbidden there.
In Washington DC beef lobby group the United States Cattlemen’s Association is petitioning the country’s Department of Agriculture to define meat as coming from the flesh of an animal, slaughtered in the traditional way.
“Our members came to us last year with this concern. We don’t want to go down the same route as the diary industry. We want to be able to clearly define what beef and meat is in a regulatory setting,” Lia Biondo, said the USCA’s director of policy.
“We also don’t agree with the term clean meat. That implies traditional ranching is dirty. We’d prefer it to be called something along the lines of cell cultured proteins.”
Cultured meat start up Memphis Meats has asked the USDA to reject the petition arguing, “the only difference between clean or cultured meat products and conventional products is the process by which the animal parts are grown and harvested.”
“This difference does not mean that the finished product is not ‘meat,’ ‘beef,’ or ‘poultry.'”
Ms Biondo said her association’s petition was not a defensive move by the cattle sector, but rather a fair one, and challenged Australia’s beef sector to also address the issue.
Australia’s peak farm lobby group, the National Farmers Federation, is hesitant to follow the US and French lead in lobbying for naming bans.
“There’s no reason to beat around the bush, if we are growing lab-based synthetic protein, let’s call it “lab-based protein”, NFF President and New South Wales farmer, Fiona Simson said.
“But the NFF doesn’t have a position yet. Clearly with the development of this technology, we are seeing it advancing much quicker than anyone would have thought.”
Ms Simson admitted plant-based alternatives and lab meats do pose a potential threat to traditional livestock farmers, saying “clearly there are demands for it, and we can’t stop technology.”
Victorian livestock agent James Haddrick said naming lab and plant-based meat alternatives as meat was a “contentious issue”.
“Our beef, our lamb, our chicken and our pork should be called meat, and anything else should have another name for the product,” he said.
Farmer David Quinlan agreed, but is hanging his hopes on the fact scientists are a long way off replicating a full cut of meat.
“It’s a bit of a threat, but at this stage nothing better than a good bit of steak on the plate.”