Experts say that the unanswered question of whether cultured meat is halal or not is holding back investment in the Middle East
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The spread of cultured meat and other cellular agriculture problems continue in the region continues to suffer from uncertainty surrounding whether the products are halal or not, according to experts.
Cellular agriculture refers to the use of bio-technology, tissue engineering and synthetic biology to produce to create products that would have been traditionally created using traditional agriculture methods.
Cultured meat, for example, is created using in vitro cultivation of animal cells, rather than meat that is made from slaughtered animals.
Cedric Daou, principle, government practice at global management consulting firm A.T. Kearney, explained that much of the debate stems from the fact that cellular agriculture is often compared to “cloning.”
“Already, some religious people are against that. The idea of having meat that is not slaughtered in the proper way could be against religious thinking and teachings, or be fine with it,” he added. “The topic will be debated every time it is brought up by different."
Mohammed Dhedhi, A.T. Kearney’s principal for consumer practice, said that the debate is most noticeable when it comes to securing venture capital in the Middle East.
“When it comes to VC funding in this region, for cultured eat it will be a challenge until the questions around whether [it is] halal or not are addressed,” Dhedhi said.
“It gets down to a debate about where the stem cells are obtained from, whether that’s a halal source or not a halal source. You’d need scholars to weigh in on the permissibility before coming to a conclusion,” he added.
Religious scholars, however, have been conspicuously absent from the debate on cultured meats so far, with very few having weighed in on the topic.
Uma Valeti, Memphis Meats co-founder and CEO, and Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed, founder and CEO, KBW Ventures.
In 2013, a scholar from International Islamic Fiqh Academy in Saudi Arabia was quoted as comparing cultured meats to “yoghurt and fermented pickles”. Another report, from the Journal of Religion and Health in 2018, concluded that cultured meat is halal if the stem cell is extracted from a halal-slaughtered animal, with no blood or serum used in the process.
Arabian Business has reached out to the UAE’s General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments as well as Al Azhar University in Egypt for comment on the issue.
Checks all the boxes?
Among the Gulf-based investors active in the cultured meat space is Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal al Saud, the founder and CEO of KBW Ventures.
Through the company, Prince Khaled has invested in a number of companies involved in cultured meat products, such as cell-based food tech firm Memphis Meats and Beyond Meat.
In an interview with Arabian Business, Prince Khaled – while repeatedly noting that he is not a scholar of Islamic law – said he believes that cultured meat “can check all of the boxes” that would make it halal.
“Before butchering traditional meat, a recitation of Bismillah is required. Prior to cell sampling, that same recitation can take place,” he explained. “There’s virtually no suffering involved as it is a relatively simple sampling process in terms of harvesting the cells.”
Additionally, Prince Khaled added that from a “preliminary and novice standpoint”, the case for halal meat being cultured is bolstered by the fact that is uses “only the exact amount of resources it needs to grow”.
“This is anti-waste and considering that water scarcity is a major issue, it falls on the right side of Islamic ethics by producing much less waste and cutting out all the inefficiencies and unneeded consumption,” he said, adding that it also saves land used to cultivate crop to grow food for the traditional meat sector.
While Prince Khaled said he’s held “unofficial discussions with many scholars” who confirmed “they would have no issue with cultured meats if the correct Islamic conditions are met”, the topic deserves further debate and an official ruling.
“I would like to get a dialogue going between our scholars and our partner companies,” he added.
According to research from AT Kearney, GCC consumers have some of the highest per capita meat consumption rates in the world, totalling 64 kg per person in Saudi Arabia and 59 kg per person in the UAE.