Cultured meat is finally here. It will probably take most of us a while yet to find it on the shelves of our local supermarket, but anyone who has the opportunity to visit an exclusive restaurant in Singapore called 1880 will find a unique dish on the menu: cultured chicken meat, produced by the American company Eat Just. At the same time, the Israeli company Future Meat Technologies recently announced the opening of the world’s first industrial manufacturing plant for cultured meat, which will have the capacity to produce 500 kilos per day; their products should hit the shelves in 2022. These are the latest visible advances in the field of so-called lab-grown meat, an alternative that is promoted as more sustainable than conventional meat and whose progress and promises we have been hearing about in recent years, amid debate among proponents, naysayers and those who simply doubt its commercial viability or public acceptance.
Cows are inefficient, says one of the pioneers of lab-grown meat. They are not, of course, inefficient per se, but we humans raise them for the production of meat, of which they yield only about 4% from the protein they consume, compared to 6% for lamb, 8% for pork and almost 20% for chicken. In addition, meat consumption is now being challenged due to the environmental impact of livestock farming: more than 70% of arable land is devoted to this activity, which consumes large quantities of drinking water and is responsible for 5% of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly methane—14% if the whole life cycle is considered. This is compounded by an intensive use of antibiotics that encourages the proliferation of resistant bacteria.
For all these reasons, in the search for more sustainable alternatives, the biotechnology of in vitro meat cultivation has matured in recent decades, a development that is invariably accompanied by this reflection written by Winston Churchill in 1931: “With a greater knowledge of what are called hormones, i.e. the chemical messengers in our blood, it will be possible to control growth. 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.“
After Churchill’s vision, it was the Dutch physician Willem van Eelen who in the 1950s scientifically investigated the idea of producing meat in vitro, although it was not until the 1990s that technological advances allowed the first steps to be taken. In 2005, the production of cultured meat made its way into the pages of scientific journals, but two years earlier, biological artists Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr had already presented and tasted the first steak created from frog stem cells, as part of their Tissue Culture & Art Project proposing “victimless meat.” In 2013, cultured meat made headlines with the unveiling of the first burger created in vitro by Dutch professor Mark Post, a project funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin and costing €250,000.
Replicating the texture of a bite of meat
The principle of cultured meat is based on extracting precursor cells from the animal’s muscle fibres, called myosatellite cells, and culturing them to create a three-dimensional structure similar to that of conventional meat. These cultures give rise to a material with a consistency similar to minced meat, such as the one presented by Professor Post in 2013, which is suitable for making hamburgers, meatballs or nuggets. However, researchers are now looking to refine the offering with systems that achieve a more steak-like texture, which requires the use of an edible molecular scaffolding to simulate the structure of normal muscle.
A major step forward has recently come from a group of researchers at the Israel Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa. The scientists have used a porous three-dimensional matrix of soy proteins, on which they have grown bovine myosatellite cells along with other muscle and endothelial cells, the cells that line blood vessels. The result is a product whose taste and sensory properties, as judged by volunteers who have tried it, achieve “the goal of replicating the sensation and texture of a bite of meat,” the researchers write in their study.
The researchers behind this breakthrough hope to further improve their product, for example by adding a component that tasters of cultured meat have generally missed: fat. “It would be best to include adipocytes, and we have shown that our system supports it,” study co-author Neta Lavon, vice president of R&D at Aleph Farms, the company set up to develop the product, tells OpenMind. “The next leap to resemble real tissue is to build in the scaffold structures mimicking blood vessels to feed all the internal cells and accordingly allow the formation of thicker steaks.”
At the University of Tokyo, another team of researchers has achieved cultures of cow muscle cells that line up in one direction to form fibres so similar to natural tissue that they even contract when an electrical impulse is applied. Although still millimetre-sized pieces, the scientists are working to produce larger portions to which they hope to add fat and blood vessels, and have already teamed up with a Japanese food company to bring the product to market. However, no one has yet tasted the meat, as the researchers are awaiting approval from the ethics committee.
Industrial scaling, the litmus test
Thus, the many challenges that remain are gradually being overcome. Researchers have also recently succeeded in replacing foetal bovine serum, a classic ingredient of cell cultures that also depends on livestock. However, alternatives to this natural cocktail of nutrients are still expensive: “Technical barriers to cultured meat commercialisation include reducing the cost of supplemental growth factors, establishing supply chains for other culture medium components and increasing the production scale of adherent cell lines,” Natalie Rubio, a researcher in cell agriculture at Tufts University and New Harvest Institute, summarises for OpenMind.
Industrial scaling will be the litmus test that will determine the future of these technologies, as it depends on whether the price can be brought down to a mostly affordable level. “To allow cultured meat to be a viable product we must reach cost parity to conventional meat with time,” says Lavon, “and getting into large scales of production would allow such price decrease.” This is now the goal being pursued by the various companies involved in this new technology race, usually small start-ups, but which in some cases have already gained the backing of giants such as Nestlé. “There is significant room for several different co-existent strategies and technologies, and in some ways it is a matter of economics regarding the ones that we will see first on the market,” Paul Mozdziak, a researcher at North Carolina State University specialising in cultured poultry meat and scientific director of the company Peace of Meat, tells OpenMind.
But the hurdles are not just technical. Rubio points out that regulation of these products will also be complex. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already taken steps in this area, but the problems begin when this genus does not even have a standardised name yet: cultured meat, laboratory meat, clean meat…? The situation becomes even more complicated when the meat industry even opposes the marketing of these products as “meat”.
Finally, one big question still remains: at a time when all food producers try to market their products under the label “natural”, will consumers be willing to accept a new food that is 100% produced in industrial bioreactors? Some surveys indicate that a large proportion of consumers would be open to trying meat produced in vitro, both in Europe and the US, although not as many would make it a regular part of their diet. Rubio’s research adds a further level of difficulty, as she studies the cultivation of insect meat, muscle like any other, but from animals that, although they consumed in many regions of the world and are proposed as an alternative food for the future, are not widely accepted in the West.
“Cultural acceptance can be enhanced by high quality (e.g. taste, texture and appearance) and accurate and pre-emptive marketing strategies,” says Rubio. “I believe that the first cultured meat products, even cultured insect meat, should be indistinguishable from a sensory perspective from conventional meat products.” This, by the way, is something Churchill also noted in 1931: “The new foods will be practically indistinguishable from the natural product from the outset, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation.”
Meanwhile, the debate continues, as interests and emotional factors are accompanied by more practical objections, such as the high energy consumption required to manufacture this type of meat. However, the debate is welcome if it also promotes the search for more sustainable solutions for the conventional production of meat, a necessary transformation in the opinion of experts. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), an improvement in the efficiency of livestock farms could reduce their methane emissions by up to 33%, and new techniques for feeding cows have emerged with the aim of reducing their methane production.
In any case, after years of stagnation in experimental phases, it seems that today we are witnessing the take-off of cultured meat: the consultancy McKinsey forecasts a global market of 25 billion dollars by 2030. While this technological innovation may not be to everyone’s taste, we know that there is no accounting for taste.