Cultivate your palate for a new type of food
Cultivated Meats: Food for a Sustainable Future
By now we’re under no illusion that animal agriculture is one of the most destructive and unsustainable industries on the planet. Its insatiable appetite for water, resources, and land is disproportionately large compared to its calorie output. Its relentless polluting of our environment is on a criminal scale whereas its animal welfare standards have gradually been worsening to maximise profit. Indeed, a growing number of scientists, academics and institutions are agreeing that plant-based diets are a solution to reducing the impact of our food system on our climate and environment.
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Yet, despite many of us shifting to these diets for environmental, health and ethical convictions, an increasingly prosperous and growing majority still hankers for meat. Driven predominantly by developing nations, global demand for meat is expected to increase by more than 70% by 2050. As this demand increases we must confront some harsh realities. Zoonotic diseases, antibiotic resistance, water consumption and environmental pollution aside, even if we cleared all our remaining forests we would still not have enough arable land to continue producing meat in the fundamentally inefficient manner that we currently do. We simply do not have the space. So we can either carry on making marginal improvements modifying livestock feed and peddling fantasies about regenerative grazing or we can ditch our outdated destructive methods and embrace new technology that holds enormous potential.
The future of food
In London, 2013, at a live packed press conference, Dutch scientist Mark Post unveiled the first lab-grown meat burger. The patty, prepared by a chef, was presented to food critics and an excited audience, all of whom were suitably impressed. By extracting stem cells from a cow and growing them under lab conditions Post and his team were able to create thousands of thin strips of bovine muscle tissue to form a burger patty. The prototype took years of research and a hefty €250,000 bill. Conveniently, Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, was there to provide the funds.¹
While most of us appreciated the news for its futuristic and outlandish appeal, some saw past the novelty of lab-grown meat and to its true potential. The years following this unveiling saw many pioneering startups incorporate and venture into the field of cultivated meat. Eat Just, SuperMeat, Memphis Meats (now Upside Foods), and Mark Post’s very own MosaMeats were some of the early players to form the industry.
Winston Churchill once said: “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium”. This is the future of food. This is modern meat. Lab-grown meat, cultivated meat, cultured meat, alternative proteins, cellular agriculture, whatever we decide to call it, is a technology which allows us to farm animal products from cells rather than from animals themselves. We can escape the inefficiencies, damages and cruelties inherent, up until now, in eating meat.
In the same way farming and factories answered the call for increased meat production through agricultural innovation, so too are alternative proteins answering the call now through cellular agriculture. Farming and factories were once considered “Modern” and “Futuristic” before becoming accepted and commonplace. Such is the way with innovation: the only constant of modernity is its revision in its definition.
As Dr Pat Brown, founder of Impossible Foods and Stanford academic observes “the value proposition of meat has nothing to do with its coming from an animal.” So why not bypass the animal altogether?
Cultivated meats today
Since 2013, the alternative protein landscape which now consists of plant-based, fermentation, cultivated and insect-based products, has grown to a market size of roughly $4bn. Whilst industrialised animal agriculture still reigns supreme, within just one decade we’ve gone from a field in its infancy to a thriving landscape able to produce Mark Post’s very same burger for just €10: a 25,000-fold decrease in cost.
In fact, history was made just a month ago. On the 21st of June 2023, the United States became not the first but the second country in the world, behind trailblazer Singapore, to approve the sale of cultivated meat. Production facilities of both Upside Foods and Good Meat satisfied the regulatory standards of the US Department of Agriculture which means their products will now be sold to consumers in the United States.
According to research by Deloitte, consumers are ripe for adopting alternative proteins. Indeed, conscious consumers are increasingly willing to change their behaviour to reduce the environmental impact of their animal-based diets. 87% of consumer respondents from the US, UK, the Netherlands and Germany were committed to becoming non-meat eaters, flexitarians or conscious meat eaters. However, green premiums on alternative protein food products and disinformation surrounding their true environmental, health and ethical benefits have contributed to paltry sales.
In spite of this, investment is flowing readily to expand capabilities and overcome these challenges whilst universities are opening departments and designing courses dedicated to the field.
The Science bit
So what is meat? The encyclopaedia Britannica describes meat as “the flesh or other edible parts of animals used for food, including not only the muscles and fat but also the tendons and ligaments”. Really, the bulk of the meat we eat is skeletal muscle tissue with connective tissues to give it texture. Fat cells, amongst the muscle fibres, give it flavour, nutrition and mouthfeel.
Skeletal muscle tissue is composed of millions of individual muscle cells that have fused together to form large elongated cells known as muscle fibres, or myofibers. The fibres are packed with strong contractile protein myofilaments, actin and myosin, which give muscles their high protein content and their ability to move. For the tissue to acquire a 3D structure it needs a substrate known as the extracellular matrix (ECM). This is a network of connective tissues made up of various structural molecules such as collagens, glycoproteins and proteoglycans. During development, unspecialised stem cells will bind and grow upon the ECM which will provide the chemical and mechanical signals needed for proliferation, differentiation and eventually maturation. Signals will first trigger a proliferation in cell numbers, then activate differentiation into dedicated muscle cells, such as the muscle-specific ones used in muscle repair, and finally prompt muscle cells to fuse into mature muscle fibres.
This entire process of the formation of skeletal muscular tissue is known as myogenesis. Cultivated meat replicates this natural process by cultivating animal cells in a controlled environment thus bypassing the need to raise and slaughter live animals.
Let’s look at how this is done. Firstly, we must acquire and bank stem cells from an animal. This is achieved through a relatively harmless biopsy procedure to extract a small sample of animal tissue. One of the first challenges lies in selecting which cells to extract and from where. Primary cells are taken directly from the animal so we must consider the animal species, the age, tissue type, and location. These can be easier to grow into the desired tissue types (e.g. the muscle, fat or connective tissues of meat), however, they can vary from batch to batch, and they often have limited ability to multiply meaning more frequent biopsies. Cell lines by contrast are immortal. They were cloned, modified and maintained from a single ancestor cell to endlessly proliferate and can be frozen and revived as needed thus removing the need for the live donor animal. In theory, a single cell line could produce enough meat to feed millions. However, creating new immortal cell lines is not a simple process and working exclusively with them can lead to misidentification and contamination.²
The cells are then cultured in a special medium containing amino acids, sugars, vitamins, inorganic salts and growth factors to encourage the cells to proliferate and increase in number. Once they have, the cells are transferred into a bioreactor also known as a cultivator, not dissimilar to those used in Precision Fermentation. Again we seek to replicate what happens inside an animal’s body for cells to multiply and differentiate into muscle tissue, fat, and connective tissues. We can trigger this differentiation via changes in the medium composition, which is usually tailored to the needs of specific cell lines and their applications. Different meats have different structures. Shapeless mince and sausage meat can be produced as long as cells have adequate access to nutrients but whole cut tissues, such as steaks and chicken breast require a distinct 3D structure. Scaffolds provide this structure onto which maturing muscle cells can bind and grow. Researchers are looking at creating edible scaffolds made from hydrogels, plant or mushroom-derived structures and even 3D printing them entirely.
After a 2–8 week long process, depending on the meat type, the fibre structures are harvested, prepared, and packaged into final consumer products.
The urgent need for a new food system
We find ourselves on the precipice of deep instability. We’ve just lived through the hottest month of the last 120,000 years. Canada has been on fire since Spring, Greece is evacuating tens of thousands of people, the skies in the US have turned a toxic orange, Beijing residents have sought refuge underground, East Africans are starving from megadroughts and four continents are under extreme heat warnings. The implications of rising global temperatures are broad, frightening and already manifesting themselves through droughts, floods, forest fires, crop failures, extreme weather events, rising sea levels, mass migration, amplified feedback loops and unlivable regions of the globe. We’ve almost breached the 1.5°C temperature increase threshold which was previously deemed “safe” but which is now believed to be too high.
The inertia of global system dynamics means that regardless of what we do now temperatures will continue to rise and breach the higher ‘safe limit’ of 2°C. The summer sea ice in the Arctic which is recognised as a major stabilising force in the earth’s climate system could disappear as early as the 2030s thus amplifying a dangerous feedback loop. Historically, rapid warming in the Arctic has been associated with abrupt warming events capable of tipping the whole climate system into a new state. We must brace ourselves for a dangerous era of accelerating climate breakdown.
If we carry on producing food the way we do, for a growing population with an increasing appetite for meat we will without a doubt far overshoot 2°C thus further increasing the risks of catastrophic events and a Mad Max style dystopia.
As Deloitte puts it “alternative proteins remain one of the most powerful weapons against climate change”. This understanding is shared by the UN, Stanford and Oxford University, Project Drawdown, the PCRM, the WHO and the GFI to name but a handful. Evidently, institutions understand this, and the eye-watering sums being poured into startups show that investors understand this too, but our cultural hang-ups, pervasive disinformation and vested interests are getting in the way.
Alternative proteins are much kinder to the environment, with a footprint 97% smaller than that of beef. Not only is it absolutely critical that we help precipitate this transformation of our food system, but we must also eliminate the causes of continuing carbon emissions such as burning fossil fuels and further implement new solutions to draw down atmospheric carbon. Cultivated meats promise just this: drastically reducing emissions at the source in addition to freeing up billions of hectares of land which can be used for rewilding and carbon capture.³-⁴
The Benefits of Cultivated Meats
Cellular Agriculture, like many technologies before it, holds such potential simply because it has a great number of advantages over its conventional alternative. It requires significantly fewer resources, is far less polluting and promises to democratise food distribution. As with all technological disruptions, the incumbency will be wiped out quickly and almost entirely because newer technology is better in every way.
Three-quarters of deforestation is driven by agriculture, most of which is for the production of beef, palm oil, soy and timber, with the clearing of forests for cropland and pastures being the primary driver. Switching from conventional meat to cultivated meat would reduce land use by up to 95% for beef, 72% for pork, and 63% for chicken. Our World in Data projects that a transition to a plant-based diet could reduce global agricultural land use by 75%.⁵-⁶
In terms of GHG emissions, as we would no longer require animal feed, forestland would no longer need to be cleared and burned, thus reducing Carbon Monoxide and Dioxide emissions. Methane emissions from burping livestock would also be eliminated. A transition to cultivated meats would reduce GHG emissions by 92% for cattle beef, 52% for pork and 17% for chicken. Such a shift would halt deforestation and allow for reforestation, carbon capture and promote biodiversity.
With a growing global population projected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, ensuring food security is a looming challenge. Compounded by wars, droughts and forest fires, it is likely to become a very real threat and the recent increase in food prices is just the beginning. Alternative proteins can meet the increasing demand for protein-rich food whilst decreasing the need for arable land and natural resources. By leveraging cellular agriculture, we can create a more efficient, sustainable and decentralised food system ensuring less disparity in food distribution.
Cultivated meat also has the potential to address public health challenges associated with traditional meat consumption. As we can control the production process every step of the way, we can optimise its nutritional composition and produce it without the antibiotics, hormones, or harmful pathogens commonly found in livestock. Through cellular engineering, we could go beyond just conferring optimal nutrition and bring back or create entirely different types of meats.
Finally, cellular agriculture undeniably provides many benefits for animal welfare. We need to revisit our relationship to nature and to other living beings we share this planet with. One could argue It is our moral obligation to extend our compassion beyond ourselves and that of our own species. Cultivated meat represents an ethical breakthrough by altogether eliminating the need for animal slaughter. We could close down hellish factory farms or better yet, convert them into alternative protein facilities thus recycling existing infrastructure whilst rehiring and retraining staff. It would present a more compassionate and humane approach to meat production, aligning with the growing concerns and values of consumers who prioritise animal welfare. Yes, this will mean fewer livestock animals bred into an abominable existence, but just as well for them. Better to not have lived at all than to have briefly existed in a factory farm. Livestock animals make up 62% of total global mammal biomass whereas humans make up 34%. The remaining 4% is wild.⁷ We need more Wild.
Cellular agriculture is not limited to meat. By extracting the relevant stem cells and using the same technology we can produce a range of traditionally animal-derived ingredients and supplements, food processing enzymes, and biomaterials such as leather, milk, fibres, silks and furs.
Challenges to widespread adoption
Whilst the mass production of cultivated meat represents a very real solution to our climate and environmental plight, numerous challenges need to be addressed for its widespread adoption and commercial viability.
Cell-culture media, accounting for 55%-95% of the marginal costs of production, is possibly the most important aspect of cultivated meat technology. For the time being expensive pharmaceutical grade mediums are being produced in small volumes at high unit costs but economies of scale, smart partnerships and industry collaborations will drive costs down. Manufacturers are also looking at optimising bioreactor design and recycling the medium to increase efficiency and keep costs down.
Both Eat Just and Upside Foods have been using small quantities of foetal bovine serum (FBS) to produce their meats. Any use of animal-derived components in cultivated meat production represents a bottleneck to scaling and has prohibitive economic, and ethical constraints. However, many companies have already publicly stated they are using entirely animal-free mediums, such as by using recombinant forms of albumin protein.
Another significant challenge is in discovering and picking the most efficient and appropriate cell lines for large-scale manufacturing. A cell line is a collection of cells originating from one cell and that can continuously proliferate over time. Picking the optimal “original” is of significant importance. However creating a new cell line takes years and is typically nationally sponsored, as in Singapore. Governments need to get behind these initiatives and forcefully encourage research, innovation and investment in this field. There may also be an application for AI here in running through the multitude of parameters to simulate the optimal strains, bioprocesses, configuration and environments.
Consumer acceptance and regulatory frameworks will also play a vital role in the success of cultivated meat. New research conducted in December 2022 by Embold Research and commissioned by GFI demonstrates consumer preferences for using “cultivated meat” over other terms such as “cultured,” “lab-grown,” and “cell-based”. Public education and awareness campaigns are necessary to highlight the safety, sustainability, and benefits of alternative proteins.
In the meantime, there are strict food regulation standards to meet. High-tech products with elements of cellular and genetic engineering are bound to get bogged down with red tape, not to mention met with a general distrust from the public. Applications for approval can take years. Regulatory bodies need to guide and encourage cultivated meat companies and their applications through the bureaucratic hurdles to get their products to market as soon as possible and set a precedent for more to follow. FSANZ, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, have shown a true willingness and excitement in working on cultivated meat products, hopefully, other countries and their food standard agencies will follow suit.
As with any emerging field, it suffers from a limited talent pool. Only recently have universities launched cellular agriculture courses and funded dedicated departments meaning the few students who might have been aware of the field have yet to graduate. Of course, many other disciplines are also sought after but will usually have their sights on, or be scouted, by other industries. As the scrappy underdogs, cultivated meat startups are eternally understaffed simply because there is not enough scientific and engineering talent to go around.⁸
Bioreactors needed for large-scale production of cultivated meats are huge in volume, well in the hundreds of thousands of litres. Depending on the bioprocess design the risk of contamination of the media and growing cells would translate to crippling losses and costs.
Some arguments have been raised over whether or not cultivated meat can meet religious requirements. The short answer is yes. Cells originate from healthy animals and are extensively documented to ensure their quality and traceability. Through a biopsy on a recently slaughtered animal, where the tissue is still viable, we can determine compliance with religious laws such as halal or kosher.
It’s not too late
We have and carry on inflicting tremendous damage to our planet and our life support systems. Baked-in warming means that the inertia of climate systems will push us past the safe limits of warming and into periods of deep instability with very real risks of societal collapse. We seem hellbent on not “looking up” and burying our collective heads further into the sand whilst every summer we witness increasingly extreme events.
Make no mistake, we are on a knife edge. But It is not too late to take action to stabilise our climate systems. We must entirely change our mindset and how we perceive Nature. We must adopt the roles of wardens and stewards of our environment, not exploiters and abusers. Transitioning to a new food system is absolutely essential to halting further damage and working towards restoring and regenerating our environment to establish equilibrium. This is no small task and could take up to centuries.
If we all ate an American diet we would need 3.5 planets. Alternative proteins are emerging as an innovative technological solution to feeding the world without devouring it. It has the potential to feed more people, more effectively, whilst consuming a fraction of the resources and inflicting a fraction of the damage of conventional agriculture. Cellular agriculture is the next agricultural revolution, one that expands our responsibilities to our environment, future generations and fellow beings. One that has the potential to take us into the next phase of our evolution.
In 1978 we were shocked when the world’s first test tube baby came out “normal”, with two eyes, ten fingers and ten toes. Since then at least 12 million people have been conceived in glassware: it has become a predominant treatment for infertility.⁹
By cultivating meat in a laboratory setting using cellular agriculture techniques, scientists and entrepreneurs are spearheading a movement that promises to reshape the future of the global food industry. They address pressing concerns related to environmental sustainability, animal welfare, and food security but they need unrestricted support and backing from governments, food agencies, investors, the media and the public. As technology progresses it will achieve economies of scale and drive down costs as we saw with Mark Post’s burger patty. But time is of the essence and we need to speed up progress. We need to promote the field amongst prospective students and professionals from all backgrounds to grow the industry and talent pool. More investment and research are needed to bring down the cost of media cultures and establish optimally efficient processes, cell lines and designs. More investment is also needed to develop and convert infrastructure for large-scale production. Finally, we must encourage collaboration amongst scientists, food companies, regulatory bodies, and consumer advocacy groups to establish clear guidelines and standards to ensure the safety and ethical production of cultivated meats.
Cellular agriculture has the potential to transform our global food system to one that is infinitely more sustainable, compassionate and just whilst providing an opportunity to heal, regenerate and restore our planet. So help hasten the transition, get involved, invest, write, discuss, study, promote and shout it from the rooftops: we must cultivate our palates for a new type of food.
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