Meet the new
In December 2020, the first lab-grown meat product was approved in Singapore, making its restaurant debut a few weeks later. Abi Millar asks if now is the time for cultured meat – billed as an ethical alternative to farmed meat – to start gaining traction?
A few days before Christmas, a group of diners sat down at a swanky Singapore restaurant for a four-course dinner. The menu, which included a bao bun with chicken and spring onion, along with a crispy maple waffle with chicken and hot sauce, perhaps didn’t sound like the kind of thing that would make history. Yet one of the diners, a 12-year-old pioneer, described the chicken as “the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen or ever tasted. It’s definitely made me see how small things, like just changing the way we eat, can literally change our entire lives.”
The chicken in question, which was branded as GOOD Meat and launched at the 1880 private members’ club, was nutritionally and functionally the same as normal chicken. It tasted like chicken too – “because it is,” according to the GOOD Meat website. However, no hens were harmed in its making. Rather, this was cultured chicken – grown in a lab from cells on a chicken’s feather, without requiring the slaughter of a single bird.
Eat Just, the San Francisco startup responsible, was the first cultured meat company to reach this milestone, but is far from the only one on the track. The late Dutch scientist Willem van Eelen, widely regarded as the ‘godfather of cultured meat’, studied cell culture techniques from the 1950s onwards and filed several patents from the late ‘90s.
Over the decade that followed, stem cells from frogs were used to create a steak-like product; TIME magazine labelled cultured meat one of the breakthrough ideas of 2009; and PETA offered a prize for the first company to sell lab-grown chicken to consumers. NASA, looking for ways that astronauts might grow their own meat, even grew a sample of fish fillet from goldfish cells.
Then, in 2013, Dr Mark Post of Maastricht University created the first lab-grown beef burger, the culmination of two years of work and €250,000 of funding. The burger, made from 20,000 tiny threads of muscle tissue, was described as tasting “reasonably good” – although clearly at that price point, it wasn’t going to put McDonald’s out of business.
In 2017, Eat Just acquired Willem van Eelen’s original patents, and brought his daughter Ira on board as an advisor.
“This historic accomplishment is not the result of a single company’s actions – far from it,” said Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of Eat Just. “It’s the result of the imagination and tenacity of Willem van Eelen as well as the many scientists, educators and entrepreneurs in the field who believed in the power of this idea before most of the folks at my company were even born, including me. Today, we’re thankful for them and will continue to carry on their important work.”
The big question, then, is whether lab-grown meat is ready to hit the mainstream. With 1880 selling its chicken nuggets for just $23 – comparable to what a guest would pay for a regular chicken entrée there – is cultured meat reaching a point of commercial viability? And are consumers themselves ready to embrace cultured meat, or is there a disgust barrier to overcome first?
Dr Marianne Ellis, head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Bath and co-founder of Cellular Agriculture, is a tissue expert and one of the UK’s leading authorities on cultured meat. She believes that cultured meat will one day be available as an alternative protein source, at a cost close to everyday ‘staple’ meats like mince and chicken.
“This is some way off, possibly ten to 15 years,” she says. “We expect that cultured meat will be on the market and available in some restaurants in the next year or two, but it will be expensive and at the high end of meat product prices.”
While there is still a long way to go in terms of bringing costs down, the last few years have seen remarkable advances in that regard. There has also been a dramatic uptick in the number of companies working on lab-grown meat. Dr Neil Stephens, a sociologist and Wellcome Trust Fellow at Brunel University, has been following the social world of lab-grown meat since 2008. He estimates there are around 80 companies worldwide at the moment, up from just a handful five years ago.
There is a debate in the vegan activist community about whether culture meat is really the way forward
“When I started looking at lab-grown meat, it was really exclusively a university-based research enterprise,” he says. “Since 2015, we’ve seen a shift to something driven much more by start-up companies, who have a different way of working.”
Much of their work draws on innovations in biomedicine, some of which are highly applicable to cultured meat, and some of which need to be adapted.
“While both look at controlling cells’ proliferation and differentiation, medicine is very different in terms of volume and price point,” points out Stephens. “People will pay a lot more money for kidney tissue to address their disease than they will for a small sausage, and a small sausage would probably have more material.”
In Dr Ellis’s case, she and her team take animal stem cells and feed them a cell culture media (a nutrient solution), before placing them on a support material in a bench-scale bioreactor. The end product is a gloop of muscle cells that could ultimately be used by the food industry.
“The cost of production is still high, so finding ways to reduce costs is essential,” she says. “That is why we are working on bioprocess design to help reduce the cost of manufacture. There are also high costs associated with the purchase of cell culture media – however, a number of companies are working on making new media formulations and the most successful will likely be the one that makes production most affordable.”
The cell culture media used to make the Eat Just chicken is somewhat controversial. The company used foetal bovine serum to grow their cells, which involves the slaughter of a pregnant cow. Clearly, this poses ethical problems for the vegetarians and vegans who might otherwise view cultured meat as a harm-free product.
“This is something where, for the technology to be successful, the community needs to move away from it,” says Dr Stephens. “A number of companies have announced that they are able to move away from that – Eat Just decided they wanted to push for getting regulatory approval for a product that does use foetal bovine serum, but I think not all companies would make that same decision.”
As and when a plant-based medium can be used, lab-grown meat promises to be entirely animal-friendly. Considering 130 million chickens and four million pigs are slaughtered every day, that would be welcome news to anyone concerned about animal exploitation.
There may be major environmental benefits too, cutting out the damage associated with industrial farming practices and turning the tide on deforestation. Dr Ellis’s team are working to reduce the carbon footprint of cultured meat, by refining their bioreactor design and choosing more environmentally friendly materials.
Over the long-term, cultured meat may help reverse a looming crisis – the challenge of feeding an ever-growing population at a time of ever-depleting resources. According to the journalist George Monbiot, lab-grown food (which will include fermented flour and other food products, as well as meat) could be our best hope for the precarious years ahead.
“The new technologies I call farmfree food create astonishing possibilities to save both people and planet… If it’s done right, it means cheap and abundant food for everyone,” he wrote in The Guardian in January 2020.
Dr Ellis believes that, in future, cultured meat, plant-based food and traditionally farmed meat will all be available to consumers.
“The relative amounts and types will differ between cultures around the world, which I see as a good thing,” she says. “People will always have their personal beliefs as to what is the best diet, and this is important as differences of opinion are good for healthy debate on the future of food. My personal thoughts are that we need a diversity of food sources to ensure we can feed everyone on the planet.”
In the meantime, lab-grown meat remains something of a polarising subject. While it’s difficult to gauge consumer sentiment before the products are even on the market, studies suggest that different demographics might respond to cultured meat differently. For some, the ‘ick’ factor – the thought of consuming a ‘frankenfood’ – may be hard to overcome.
“There’s a group of people that really are not interested in cultured meat, there’s a group of people who seem very open to at least trying it and a whole lot of people in the middle who are unsure for all kinds of reasons,” says Dr Stephens. “What the studies tend to find is that the people who are more likely to want to consume cultured meat are younger, male, educated, and live in urban environments. That diversity will probably be there for a long time but may also shift depending on what happens.”
Relatedly, there is a debate in the vegan activist community about whether cultured meat is really the way forward. While many are excited at the prospect, others believe it’s sending an unhealthy message that meat is still desirable: why do we need to grow meat in a lab when we can just eat plants?
Dr Stephens thinks this debate will eventually be played out more broadly. As the growing number of vegetarians and ‘flexitarians’ will testify, it isn’t only the vegan activists who are concerned with meat reduction. However, he doesn’t see cultured meat as being a mainstream talking point until the products are actually on the market.
“The technology is still too early to actually be anywhere close to the supermarket,” he says. “Building the factories and bioreactor systems takes time – so if you want to supply a major supermarket, you have to consider the infrastructure, even if you can make cultured meat perfectly well. Don’t conflate the fact it’s being sold in one restaurant with the idea that it’ll be available in all restaurants soon – it won’t!”
Plant-based meat alternatives and lab-grown meat will account for more than half of all meat consumed by 2040
By weight, 60% of mammals on earth are livestock, 36% are humans and just 4% are wild animals
The expected size of the market for meat alternatives within the next decade, equating to 10% of the global meat industry
The expected increase in global demand for meat by 2050, compared with today’s consumption