Sustainability & CSR
I'll have the printed steak, please
Cultured meat has the potential to reduce the environmental impact of meat compared to animal farming, but the lack of a regulatory framework and economies of scale mean that it may take some time before it becomes commercially viable.
By Duncan Levine
On 9 February this year Aleph Farms in Israel cooked up and showed off the world’s first 3D-printed Rib-Eye steak made from cultivated animal cells grown in laboratory conditions. This followed another world first a couple of months earlier in December 2020 when American food producer Eat Just became the first company in the world to receive regulatory approval for its cultured (or laboratory-grown) meat. Shortly thereafter, Eat Just’s cultured “chicken bites” were sold to diners at Leonie’s restaurant housed in 1880, a private social club in Singapore, making it the world's first commercial sale of cell-cultured meat. While no other countries have yet granted approval to cultured meat, once they do so, it would open the door to a possible future when meat is produced in a clean and environmentally friendly way without the killing of livestock.
It may be hard to imagine now but a report by the global consultancy AT Kearney predicts that most of the meat people eat in 2040 will not come from slaughtered animals.
As we highlighted in a previous article, the rising global appetite for meat is putting enormous strain on the environment while the commercial meat industry supply chain comprising of factory farms, slaughter houses and wet markets provides ideal breeding grounds and ample opportunities for the development and spread of disease. A 2019 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) showed that emissions from livestock farming for meat and dairy products accounted for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide, similar to the level of the entire transportation sector. Finding alternatives to meat from farmed animals is therefore a crucial plank in the fight against climate change.
The main reason why meat has such a large environmental footprint is that raising animals for food is an extremely inefficient way to produce protein. According to the FAO, feed production and processing (which includes land use change) and enteric fermentation from ruminants are the two main sources of emissions, representing 45% and 39% of total (agricultural) emissions. Factory farm animals consume far more protein, like soybeans and corn, on a kilogram for kilogram basis than they produce while pasture-fed animals require large tracts of land to be converted from its natural state to pastures, thereby destroying natural forests and other eco-systems. Meanwhile conventional agriculture also has health implications for both humans and livestock. Poultry farming, for example, involves high doses of antibiotics used to sustain chickens in the cramped and uncomfortable conditions they are kept in.
There are two environmentally sustainable paths to break the current unsustainable meat trajectory: switching to 1) plant-based meat alternatives and 2) using environmentally sustainable methods to cultivate meat. Plant based meats have been successfully launched in several markets and continue to gain consumer support and win market share, especially in western countries. However, for reasons of tradition and culture, it is unlikely that people will give up eating meat altogether. For this segment, cultured meat offers a cleaner and greener alternative to animal farming.
Cultured meat has the potential to dramatically reduce the use of resources, land, water, and carbon emissions that come with producing meat compared to meat from farmed animals. Given the fact that the cultured meat industry is still in its infancy, hard data is still limited, and much analysis of the environmental impact is therefore variable and speculative. Moreover, the environmental impacts would depend on the type of meat grown and the processes used.
A study published in 2011 by Environmental Science & Technology suggested that in comparison to conventionally produced European meat, cultured meat involves approximately 7-45% lower energy use, 78-96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 99% lower land use, and 82-96% lower water use depending on the product compared. Because Animals, a start-up, claims that a kilogram of cultured meat generates just 1.7 kilograms (kg) of carbon-dioxide emissions, compared with 27kgs attributable to the same quantity of beef. Growing cells in vats require far less land and water than farmed animals. And, unlike the process of raising and processing animals, given the sterile and controlled conditions of a lab, contamination and disease can be virtually eliminated, provided, of course, that lab conditions are kept sterile. However, some researchers have said the green benefits of cultivated meat are overestimated because it can be energy intensive to produce. But experts cited in the AT Kearney report believe that energy savings of over 80% can be achieved when producing cellular meat on a large scale in optimised bioreactors.
AT Kearney predicts the combination of plant-based and cultured meat will rise to 60% of meat consumption globally by 2040 given the heavy environmental impacts of conventional meat production and the concerns people have about the welfare of animals in industrial farming.
Up until now the cultivation of meat from cells in laboratory conditions has been confined to the experimental phase and the process remains expensive. But this may be about to change following the success of Eat Just in Singapore and several other examples of lab grown meat that are close to reaching the commercialisation stage. For example, Israeli start-up SuperMeat is growing cultivated chicken while Hong Kong-based food tech start-up Avant Meats produced the world’s first lab-grown fish fillets last year.
Cultured meat is a fairly recent development. In 2013, Mark Post, a professor at Maastricht University, created the world’s first cultured beef hamburger using a small amount of animal cells grown in a laboratory. Post went on to found the company Mosa Meats with the aim of bringing the product to market. The first burger cost €250,000 to make. But production costs have fallen dramatically since then and a number of cellular meat enterprises have sprung up and are now much closer to reaching commercial viability. The average cost of producing a kilogramme of cultured beef had already fallen to around €100 in 2020. A Mosa Meats spokeswoman has said that once production is scaled up, the projected cost of producing a hamburger will be around €9. While this would still represent a hefty premium compared to the average beef burger (which, depending on the size, retails for US$1-2) and even compared to the pricey plant based Beyond Meat burgers (which currently retail for around US$3-4 each), given the trajectory realised by economies of scale, retail prices can be expected to fall further still.
While the technique, materials and formula used to grow cellular meat vary from producer to producer, they have similarities. The first step is to build a cell line, or a healthy population of self-generating cells. Avant Meats, for example, collects a small sample of fish swim bladder cells and provides an environment in vitro to allow the cells to grow and replicate. SuperMeat takes cells from chicken eggs to grow its chicken breasts. Some companies have reportedly even managed to extract and replicate chicken cells from feathers, meaning that no live animals are ever involved in the process. According to Avant Meats, it does not need to take another cell sample after the cell line is established and continues to proliferate stably. In the next step, the cells are placed in clean and carefully controlled conditions and provided with the necessary nutrients, such as amino-acids, vitamins, minerals, glucose, and salt. Conditions, such as temperature and acidity/alkalinity need to be kept optimal to allow the cells to grow. Growth can be quite rapid. According to SuperMeat, under the right conditions, the number cells can double in just 12 hours and it takes just 48 hours to grow a chicken breast.
Aleph Farms first started working on its cruelty-free cultivated beef in 2018 but has since scaled it up for mass production via the use of 3D-printing. The pioneering bioprinting technology, developed with research partners at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, involves the printing of actual living bovine cells that are then cultivated in a lab environment to acquire the texture and qualities of steak.
Once grown, the cells are harvested from the incubation environment and processed into the desired end product, such as burgers, fish fillets or chicken nuggets. Many of the meats are combined with plant ingredients. For example, Eat Just’s meat consists of 70% cells, while the remainder is made from mung bean proteins and other ingredients. SuperMeat’s chicken is roughly 50% plant-based proteins. Moreover, unlike reared poultry, cultured meat can be altered in the process. For example, SuperMeat can grow something that is a cross between a between a chicken breast and a thigh. Other options include supplementing the cells with other ingredients to add texture and flavour, such as added seasonings. This opens the possibilities to many more varied and flavourful meat offerings being developed in future.
Unlike Singapore, there is still no regulation for cultured meat in Israel, meaning that SuperMeat cannot sell its meat to customers. Instead, it is promoting its products by inviting members of the public to try its dishes, although they have to sign a waiver agreeing to “voluntarily assume any and all risks”. The same regulatory vacuum currently exists in Europe and the United States. Given the prevailing cautionary approach of food regulators in most countries it may be several years before regulatory approval is granted for the sale of cultured meat for human consumption.
But even once regulatory approval is granted, there are still doubts about how open consumers will be to cellular meat. Besides traditional cultural reasons, the so-called “yuk factor” has been cited as a turn-off if people know that their meat is grown in a vat. But this is clear case of the pot calling the kettle black. As anyone who has visited a slaughterhouse can attest to, factory farming and the processing of meat generated from it is also revolting, in addition to being cruel to animals, not to mention the enormous direct and indirect environmental destruction caused by animal farming.
But the problem of acceptance is nevertheless real, and the approval process may drag on for years. Taiwan, for example, tends to be a laggard in terms of food safety approvals and is likely to wait for international precedents. In addition, while there is some concern about animal welfare in Taiwan, there is much less awareness among consumers in Taiwan about the environment impact of the meat industry, without which consumers are unlikely to feel the need to seek alternatives, especially if they are more expensive than traditional products. A real-world case from MOS Burger illustrates the difficulty of achieving commercial viability. The hamburger chain introduced a Beyond Meat plant-based burger in its outlets in Taiwan only to withdraw it several months later. In another example, some local branches of Starbucks have experimented by offering plant-based meat sandwiches and pasta dishes, but they have always been limited in number and not available at all branches. Part of the problem may be that these products are priced at a considerable premium to their traditional meat counterparts, putting off price conscious consumers. It seems unlikely that either plant-based or cultivated meat will be attractive enough to the average consumer globally (and especially in Taiwan), unless both the awareness and pricing issues are addressed.
In the meantime, there may be a faster intermediate route to both regulatory approval and consumer acceptance in the business of cultured meat: pet food. Pet food is also a rapidly growing market and therefore a large contributor to the rising demand for meat globally. But regulatory standards for food fed to animals are not as stringent as for humans. Moreover, Fido and Fluffy don’t care where their meat comes from or what it looks like, as long as it tastes good. That is why some pet food companies are getting into the business of culturing meat for pets.
Because Animals, a firm based in Philadelphia, has used cells from mice to culture mice meat that it hopes to begin selling as cat food by the end of the year. Another firm, Bond Pet Foods of Boulder, Colorado, is developing cultivated meat using another technique whereby, instead of growing their cells directly, it is inserting genes for nutritionally important chicken proteins into cells of brewer’s yeast. These reproduce faster than chicken cells do. Initially, cultured meat for pets will target environmentally conscious pet owners and no doubt be priced at a considerable premium to current offerings. However, the approval and market acceptance of cellular meat for pets could help to accelerate regulatory approval as well as consumer acceptance of cellular meat for human consumption, which would in turn spur further market development, competition, and economies of scale in the cultured meat business. Producers will no doubt start with products where the visible appearance of cultured meat is indistinguishable from the traditional versions, such as in breaded chicken nuggets, meat dumplings or ready-made meals featuring already cooked and seasoned minced meat, before trying to sell a cultured steak in a supermarket. Even then it will take attractive pricing and clever marketing of cultured meat as a clean and green alternative to win mass market appeal.
It may be a while before you can order a cultured burger or steak at your favourite restaurant or pick some up at your local supermarket, but with the right regulatory moves, incentives, and marketing they may well one day become more common than animal-farmed meat.