Why lab-grown meat may never be on the menu

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The writer is a science commentator

Laboratory-grown meat has come a long way since 2013, when Google co-founder Sergey Brin bankrolled the first burger made from meat cells grown outside an animal. The patty, which cost about $330,000 to make, stoked an investor appetite for cultured meat and highlighted the technology’s perceived potential as a kinder, more climate-friendly way of feeding the world.

Seven years later, Singapore became the first country to sell lab-grown meat — nuggets formed from a hybrid of chicken and plant proteins — to diners and shoppers. The year after, the sector attracted $1.9bn of venture capital. Now another hurdle has been cleared, this time in the US: the Food and Drug Administration announced last month it had completed a “pre-market consultation” on lab-grown chicken, and raised no safety concerns with its maker, Upside Foods. The US Department of Agriculture still needs to carry out inspections before approval is granted but the path to commercialisation looks clearer.

Even so, key questions over the technology’s viability linger, including consumer acceptance, cost and the practicalities of scaling up laboratory production. Observers are also unsure to what extent non-meat proteins, such as tofu, are becoming a new dietary norm.

“We’ve already seen a huge shift away from beef and lamb towards chicken,” points out Professor Tom MacMillan from the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester, England, who is leading a project to assess how Britain’s farmers would be affected if lab-grown meat takes off. The move away from meat will continue, MacMillan predicts, but “the bigger uncertainty is how far that shift will go towards plant-based foods . . . and how much cultured meat will play a role.” In short, this futuristic industry may be heading for an unpalatable reality check.

Lab-grown meat is an example of “cellular agriculture” which can be used to produce meat, milk and egg proteins, as well as honey and leather. In the case of meat, the process involves taking stem cells, via a biopsy, from a donor animal and nurturing them in a “bioreactor” to grow into muscle and fat cells. The bioreactor simulates the conditions in which the cells would normally grow, providing a temperature-controlled broth of nutrients and a “scaffold” to enable proliferating cells to replicate a natural texture. The finished product looks, smells, cooks and supposedly tastes quite like the real thing. Indeed, it is genuine meat, as distinct from plant products that are fashioned to look like meat.

One touted virtue of lab-grown meat is environmental, though comparisons are contested because scaled-up production will be energy intensive. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 15 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans are due to global livestock, mostly cattle reared for beef and dairy. Cultured meat also addresses animal welfare and health concerns: it is often described as slaughter-free, and is untainted by antibiotics, hormones and diseases such as salmonella and E. coli.

But it does not come cheap. An analysis published this month in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Research suggests that, even with scaling up, cultured meat would cost about $63 a kilo to produce. The authors, at Oklahoma State University, note that 2021 wholesale per kilo prices for lean pork and beef were under $4 and just over $6 respectively. This nascent industry, they conclude, has “a long way to go before it can operate and make an acceptable return on investment”.

It is also trying its luck at a time when meat is getting a bad rap. The influential 2019 EAT-Lancet Commission advised cutting back even on chicken and fish. About 4 per cent of UK consumers are vegans; another 7 per cent are vegetarian. And if conventionally produced meat is losing its appeal, lab-grown alternatives face the extra barrier of being perceived as unnatural: a third of carnivores and more than half of vegetarians find it too disgusting to try.

There is little doubt that the future of food is being reshaped by powerful forces: by demography, with a predicted world population of 10bn by 2050 and rising demand from an expanding middle class in regions such as Latin America; by land use, climate and biodiversity considerations; by changing dietary advice; and by the rise of the health-conscious, eco-aware, ethical consumer.

How much space that leaves on the global plate for cultured meat or hybrid delicacies is very much up for debate.

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