Australia has become the latest country to join the emerging lab-grown meat industry, which so far has been dominated by food-tech start-ups in Europe, Israel and California's Silicon Valley.
- Two Australian companies that grow meat in a laboratory from animal stem cells want to make the product commercially viable
- Currently, the product is more expensive than regular meat
- The companies hope the scale and technology will progress to the point where lab-grown meat is a viable and more sustainable alternative to real meat production
Two Australian companies, Heuros in Canberra and VOW in Sydney, are aiming to make meat grown from animal stem cells in a laboratory a commercial reality.
"At the moment we are the first company to emerge [in Australia]," Heuros founder Nick Beaumont said.
"I think there are others that are operating in stealth, but they haven't shown their hand yet."
Despite the hype, no lab-grown meat company anywhere in the world has yet released a commercial product.
While they can easily produce the meat in a laboratory setting, the start-ups still have not solved the mystery of how to scale up to large factory-size commercial production.
Heuros is attempting to solve one of the biggest headaches for the emerging global industry — by creating a formula for the cells to grow in that is environmentally sustainable and affordable, enabling lab-meat companies to scale up their production and make faux meat affordable.
"We have made a lot of progress," Mr Beaumont said.
"We could maybe supply the material to make a burger-sized piece of meat for $30–40, so we are close but it is not quite comparable to the cost of traditional meat yet.
"The more we produce, there will be economies of scale and hopefully we can improve the price of the product."
Keeping it natural
While many of the companies clamouring to produce so-called clean meat were developing their own growth mediums behind closed doors, Mr Beaumont said his company was trying to set itself apart by developing a product that was as natural as possible.
"We are defining it by the technologies we are not using," he said.
"We are not using genetic modification, we are not using recombinant proteins.
Mr Beaumont recently unveiled his company's ambitions at New Harvest in Boston in the United States — a gathering of 150 leaders in the cellular agriculture industry, which included representatives from some of the 20 or so lab-meat companies already operating.
"There's great research work being done in Australian universities and we want to encourage some of these academics to really get on board," he said.
Another Australian clean meat company, VOW, declined the ABC's request for comment.
However on its website the company says "our vision is to leapfrog traditional agriculture completely".
"By building a food production system from the cellular level up, VOW exists to initiate a change to no longer be constrained by the limits we encounter if we continue to 'work the land'.
VOW's website shows an image of a kangaroo with the slogan "better food. no compromise" superimposed over it.
It also said the types of meat grown from cells that future generations could be eating were limitless.
"In our unconstrained future there are no limits to the thousands of species we can draw upon.
"An adventure to scour the earth like a cellular-level Indiana Jones, prospecting the earth for unique textures, flavours and sensations, without harm."
Venture capitalists funding Aussie fake meat
Australian scientists and start-ups wanting to enter the clean meat industry are attracting the interest of local venture capitalists, although not on the scale of some of the leading American companies.
In 2017 California-based Memphis Meats announced it had raised $23 million ($US17 million) in a single round of funding, by attracting investments from large venture capital firms as well as billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson.
Blackbird Ventures, a venture capital firm with offices in Sydney and Melbourne, recently pumped investment dollars into Heuros, although it would not say how much.
Partner Niki Scevak said the firm first took an interest in Australian-based clean meat scientists and start-ups in 2017 after seeing how quickly the industry was growing overseas.
Mr Scevak said the rapid advancement of the technology, as well as a shift in consumer attitudes, made the clean meat sector a potential goldmine.
"As the inputs of agriculture like the land, water and methane pollution wear down our planet, and the cost of beef in particular is on a runaway trajectory upwards, we need to consider alternative ways to feed the world," he said.
"Because of that, there is a strong, powerful movement forming around the world."
The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that by 2050 the world's population is estimated to exceed 9 billion people.
Mr Scevak said not only will there be more people needing food, but also the diets of people in developing countries will change, increasing the demand for meat.
"People in India and China are rising up out of poverty and we might see the same thing happen in Africa in the coming decades," he said.
However, the industry still needs to solve the problem of scalability and mass production before any of these high ambitions are reached.
"Is it a risky thing to invest in at this stage? Yeah, it is," Mr Scevak said.
"The chances are that things won't work out more than things will work out.
"Venture capital involves looking for things that are low probability, but if they do happen will have a huge impact on society."