Cultured meat has shown a lot of potential, and it is the only time we have it on our plates. But wait a minute, what exactly is cultured meat? Cultured meat can be defined as slaughter-free meat grown in the lab. The concept might seem far-fetched, but the reality of creating commercial-scale cultured meat is real. Soon it will be possible to get high-quality salmon from fish cells or irresistible crisp chicken cutlets grown in a bioreactor with ease.
The concept of manufactured meat has inundated the cultural scene for a while, especially in sci-fi movies. The invention of the meat comes as a solution to man’s destruction of the environment and has little to no real animal meat.
Cultured meat, also called cell-based meat or lab-grown meat, has been growing fast in anticipation of the inevitable doom after man exhausts all the natural meat sources. A few challenges are hampering its successful large-scale rollout to compete with the 1.8 trillion environmentally destructive meat market. However, there is some optimism that the product could displace commercial animal products with a more sustainable source. Market estimates expect cell-based meat to cover up to 36% of the market by 2040.
How Culture Meat is Made
Cultured meat is made possible through cellular agriculture. Meat culturing eliminates costly processes like animal husbandry and slaughtering farm animals or aquatic creatures for food. The farming method is cost-effective as it reduces the strain on land, water, and other resources required in traditional agriculture. The best part of the story is that it is not carbon-intensive and reduces carbon emissions generated by industrial animal agriculture. There have been arguments to the contrary that have asserted that cultured meat could be worse for the environment due to energy consumption. Still, studies Commissioned by the Food Institute show that the use of renewable energy in the process could reduce the carbon footprint by up to 80%.
Cellular agriculture starts by acquiring and banking animal stem cells to be grown in bioreactors rather than at the farm. It is not entirely cruelty-free, though there are many methods of obtaining animal cell culture with different levels of invasiveness. The cells are often taken from a biopsy of a living animal which is done under anesthesia. Cells may also be obtained from animal by-products such as waste tissue in abattoirs, or cells could also be extracted from feathers or fur if enough is present.
A challenge experienced is that most of the extracted cells have a shelf life, which implies that animal cells have to be harvested regularly to sustain production. The frequency of cell harvesting will vary from firm to firm. There is, however, a lot of research by firms to have a cell line that grows indefinitely like the HeLa cells. The development of such a cell line would mean that a cell line can be harvested using a non-invasive procedure and no additional biopsies would be necessary.
Once the cells have been harvested, they are fed a cell medium culture that contains basic nutrients such as amino acids, glucose, and vitamins which are supplemented with other growth factors. The cell medium mimics the natural environmental conditions of cells grown in an animal’s body. Most companies use a fetal bovine serum (FBS), an expensive and controversial ingredient that accounts for 90% of all cultured meat. The serum is extracted from cattle fetuses and blood.
The fetus is often extracted from pregnant cows at slaughter. FBS costs $200 per liter, and it has to be replaced every two to three days once the nutrients are depleted, raising the costs further. Many startups are working on creating a cheaper alternative for FBS like the FBS serum by Multus Media which goes for $1 a liter.
Chicken and fish maw are also transferred to the scaffold to provide structure for the cells to imitate. Scaffolding is made from materials such as algae, plant cellulose, proteins such as zein. The scaffolding is 3D printed or made using mycelium. The type of scaffolding varies from firm to firm. Meat culturing can take two to eight weeks, depending on the company, procedure used, and the quality of the raw materials. Eat Just, a California-based company best known for its vegan eggs, takes 14 days to make cultured chicken faster than the 45 days needed to grow a chicken from the egg to slaughter.
Investments in the Cultured Meat Industry
There are over 75 companies in the cell-cultured meat industry producing different types of proteins such as chicken, pork, beef, lobster, and even more ethical foie gras. The industry has not gone unnoticed, and big investors like Tyson Foods, Cargill, and Brazil’s BRF SA have put in large sums, according to the Good Food Institute. The French government has backed Gourmet, which is involved in culturing foie gras. Likewise, the Spanish government has invested in BioTech Foods and NovaMeat, while the Us government has put funds in cultured meat research. Other governments and intergovernmental agencies taking efforts are the governments of Singapore, Israel, Japan, Western Australia, and the European Union.
A few Hurdles
There is obviously a challenge scaling the cultured meat industry due to the novel involved. Research in the area may bring hope to the industry and make it possible to produce meat sustainably in the lab. The need to mass-produce cultured meat is immediate to meet the growing global demand for meat products and overcome its largest rival, traditional meat, which produces 340 million tonnes of meat yearly.
Prices have to be also regularised to compete with traditional meat should the industry need to survive. Substantial progress has been made with a shift to FBS-free serum. There is a glimmer of hope with the price of chicken meat dropping to $4 per hundred grams and the projection that it will halve by 2022. There is also a challenge of regulatory approval Singapore being the only country that has approved the sale of cultured meat.
The last hurdle that the industry has to overcome is human perspectives to ensure that people are willing to consume cultured meat. Twenty-six studies show that at least a majority of consumers would at least try the beef. However, the road to general public acceptance will follow the road of the impossible Burger, meet like Burger introduced by high-end restaurants. The strategy worked with most of the burgers landing at Burger King. Only time will tell if in future one the mass adoption of cultured meat so anyone can order easily.