We explore the world of ‘cultured’ meat – a cruelty-free vision for the future – and asks how sustainable it really is
At first, it seemed like any other burger. Dripping in blood red juices, the fried patty’s meaty aroma filled the room and aroused appetites in the assembled crowd. The beef had bite, was slightly crunchy, not chewy, and held the deep, reassuring heat of something taken from the barbecue a few seconds before. But this burger did not come from a cow. At least, not one that trotted through fields of mud. It was grown artificially, in a laboratory.
The result, which cost €250,000 (£213,000) and took more than two years to produce, was tasted back in August 2013 by Hanni Rützler, a food trends researcher for the Future Food Studio. “I was worried it would be creamy,” laughs the Austrian, a former food critic. “But it was very pure. I was very surprised how close it was to the original.”
Depending on what you want to call it – lab-grown, in-vitro, cultured or the rather emotive “clean” meat are among the favourites – the science behind this burger has developed at lightning speed since Rutzler’s first taste. To make the meat, scientists take a small amount of animal stem cells, and grow thousands of thin strands of muscle tissue. Beef, pork, poultry, seafood and even chicken nuggets are currently in the works.
Start-ups in America, Israel and the Netherlands are leading the way, receiving millions in funding, and last December the first steak not requiring the slaughter of a cow was grown in a lab. They cost just $50 (£37) to produce – and in time, prices will plummet further.
“Lab-grown meat has the potential to spare billions of animals all the cruelty of factory farming” – Elisa Allen
“It’s a technology which gives us a completely new view on the development of food,” adds Rützler. “It could change how we eat.”
Lab-grown meat is expected to be widely available within five years. We could be on the cusp of something truly revolutionary: guilt-free meat, of consistent quality, and potentially made at home. Companies argue lab-grown meat will improve our diets currently high in saturated fat, halt the superbug crisis caused by mass farming’s overuse of antibiotics, increase the safety and reliability of our food systems, eradicate animal slaughter, and significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
The role lab-grown meat could play in tackling climate change is compelling. The UN has calculated that animal farming is responsible for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Growing populations and climate change are putting an increasing strain on our food systems. According to the UN, global meat consumption is projected to increase 70% by 2050, and the worldwide population will reach 9.8 billion. But vegan diets aren’t for everyone – and alternative sources of protein such as insects, algae and mushrooms are being explored on a huge scale.
For that reason, lab-grown meat has support from animal rights campaigners – currently the process requires cells to be taken from living animals, but soon that won’t be necessary. “Lab-grown meat has the potential to spare billions of animals all the cruelty of factory farming, the terror of transportation, and an agonising death in an abattoir,” says Elisa Allen, director of PETA, the US-based animal rights organisation.
“We could be on the cusp of something truly revolutionary: guilt-free meat, of consistent quality, and potentially made at home”
“We want to create a new method of producing real meat so we can feed the growing population using production methods that are sustainable,” says Sarah Lucas of the Maastricht-based Mosa Meats, the soon-to-be team of 30 who created the first burger in 2013. By 2021, the company will be selling its first mainstream product to consumers.
But some questions linger over whether lab-grown meat is a safer choice for our environment. Unlike rearing cattle, lab-grown meat would not produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas, but it does produce CO2, which takes thousands of years to disappear from the atmosphere (methane takes just 12).
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“At the moment, we don’t really know what lab-grown meat production looks like and emissions it creates,” says John Lynch, a professor at Oxford University who published a report raising concerns about the amount of energy that growing meat in a lab requires. “It’s good that people are recognising that agriculture is a significant source of emissions. But we should be cautious.”
Humans are, of course, unpredictable consumers. Who knew vegan sausage rolls would become a blockbuster at Greggs? It might take a Matcha-infused meat-shake to win people over. But Chris Bryant, a psychologist at the University of Bath who recently published a study into consumer interest across the USA, India, and China, says the key factors in lab-grown meat being accepted are price, taste, naturalness and safety.
“What we find consistently across different countries is that consumers are more willing to engage with clean meat the more familiar they are with the concept,” he says of the research, which found “high levels of acceptance” in all three countries. A separate survey involving the UK found 29% would eat it, 38% wouldn't, and the rest didn’t know.
Between now and drunken, 3am lab-grown kebab runs (a sign of true integration), however, plenty needs to be done on the scientific side. At the heart of that process is Dr Mark Kotter, a professor at Cambridge University’s Department of Clinical Neurosciences, who leads a team of 25 staff at the cutting edge of stem cell research. It is work that touches on the very nature of existence.
“It’s a unique and such a special time to be in this field... It could change humanity in so many ways” – Daan Luining
“At a high level, this technology provides you access to the operating system of life,” he tells me. Dr Kotter’s initial interest focused on complex regenerative medicine such as repairing injuries to the brain and spinal cord. But his attention then turned onto how the science could be used on animals.
Kotter’s research formed the foundation for Dutch company Meatable, which raised $3.5 million in its first round of funding last year. His technology should allow Meatable to create lab-grown meat without using any animals.
“It’s a unique and such a special time to be in this field,” says Daan Luining, Meatable’s chief technical officer, bursting with the mile-a-minute enthusiasm of a zany professor. “It could change humanity in so many ways.”
It’s difficult to cast lab-grown meat as anything other than futuristic: the dream-worthy stuff of sci-fi. It will still go mouldy if we leave it in the fridge too long, however, and there will still be washing up. Yet within its compact, white-walled lab full of microscopes in a quiet part of the Netherlands, Meatable, along with a handful of companies around the world, are exploring the future of food. It’s coming sooner than we think.