It’s a question that we might all get to answer for real sometime soon as ‘cultivated’ meat made from stem cells becomes closer to being a commercial reality. Its entry into the marketplace will transform the longstanding polarised debate about whether to eat meat from the current black-and-white conversation of go veggie/vegan, or not.
Recently, that apparent dietary divide has been bridged by the rise of the ‘flexitarian’ – someone who mixes it up a bit – flexing between plant-based and carnivore to reduce their overall meat intake.
But now there’s a new game in town and cultivated meat grown without the animal is threatening to disrupt the global meat market. It’s produced from stem cells harmlessly drawn from donor animals, then raised in a soup of nutrients in a bioreactor. No animal components are needed. Replicating nature but without the slaughter.
It’s something that has long been solely the realm of science fiction; seemingly fanciful and impossibly far off. Now, it has become a multi-billion-dollar industry researching, nurturing, even serving cultivated meat to paying customers. It has moved beyond the realms of fantasy to something catching the attention of policymakers, demonstrated not least by a positive citation last year in a US Government executive order.
Meeting a growing demand
The opportunity is vast – today’s animal-based meat industry is worth $1.4 trillion and continues to grow. Which is a big problem because as things stand, the greenhouse gas emissions from our appetite for meat alone look set to trigger catastrophic climate change.
Cultivated meat, on the other hand, promises a much lower environmental footprint, reducing the impact on climate, land use and air pollution. Latest predictions suggest cultivated meat could secure ten per cent of the meat market by 2030 and as much as 35 per cent by 2040.
Inevitably, some ask why not just go plant-based, why not simply be vegan? Well, there is an obvious answer: as things stand, most people want to eat meat.
Despite the recent rise of plant-based eating, the statistical fact is that per capita meat consumption in much of the world continues to climb. In the short window of opportunity left to reduce the amount of meat from a bloated and planet-damaging livestock industry, plant-based eating may well need a helping hand.
That extra push to get us beyond industrial animal agriculture could well come from something that is undisputedly “meat” but not from a slaughtered animal. In this way, consumers could have their cake and eat it – a new type of meat but without the planetary downsides.
First public taste test
From a food safety standpoint, cultivated meat could become the single most important non-pharmaceutical health development of our times. Salmonella, Campylobacter and similar illnesses are caused by bugs from contaminated faecal matter. Growing stem cells in a vat would mean no intestines and no intestinal bugs, effectively removing these food safety concerns.
Things have come a long way since that first public taste test of cultivated meat ten years ago. I remember back then how 200 journalists and academics packed into a London auditorium to watch nervous panellists eat a burger that was completely unique.
At the centre of the crowd was Professor Mark Post from the University of Maastricht, his hands poised to reveal a culinary creation that had cost $280,000 to produce. The event was more reminiscent of a TV food show than a scientific announcement. Now, it looks like it is only being a matter of time before cultivated meat reaches supermarket shelves and at an affordable price point.
Singapore has already become the first country in the world to give the commercial go-ahead for the sale of cultivated meat. In the United States, Upside Foods in Berkeley, California, became the first company to receive regulatory go-ahead from the US Food and Drug Administration for cultivated meat. Before going to market, the company still needs to convince the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. However, optimism is now high that the brakes will soon be off for this emerging product.
Another challenge will be scaling up from a test-bed laboratory product to much broader consumption. Thankfully, there are far-sighted investors that are pump-priming development.
Public funding by governments would likely be a major accelerator. It would undoubtedly make much more funding available for research and infrastructure. It could also create government ownership of the new venture, increasing the chances still further of this innovation becoming a mass market reality.
At consumer level, much is being made by some of the “yuk” factor, a negative perception of meat produced in a new way. This appears to be driven by a lack of familiarity with the product. Yet the real “yuk” factor should be reserved for the industrial meat market, where a longstanding lack of transparency prevents consumers knowing what is really going on.
If labels on many existing supermarket meat products were upfront, things would soon be different. Many consumers would recoil in horror knowing their meat comes from animals that have spent a lifetime of suffering before slaughter.
Ultimately, consumer acceptance of cultivated meat will come down to how it is labelled and perceptions of ‘natural’. Today, very little of our society – cars, electricity, computers, cities – is natural.
My view is that cultivated meat will be humanity’s version of something that nature has already given us. With time so short and current meat production such a major driver of planetary emergencies, cultivated meat could be the game-changer.
Philip Lymbery is chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, a former United Nations Food Systems Champion and award-winning author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat; Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were; and Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature-Friendly Future. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf