Lab-grown meat could enter the market in only a couple of years, presenting a feasible solution to animal slaughter, meat sustainability, and environmental problems worldwide.
While a slaughter-free world might seem quite utopian, it’s not far from reality, at least for farm animals.
Cultured meat is identical to current products except in one way — killing animals is not a prerequisite. Unlike other plant-based meat alternatives, this process derives from the medical industry. Just as tissues can be grown for healing purposes, muscle cells can be harmlessly extracted from a living cow, placed in a bioreactor to multiply, and eventually merge to form millions of muscle tissue strands. Layering these strands together creates beef, and can be applied to any species that contain muscle.
In 2013, Professor Mark Post presented the world’s first lab-grown burger. Working alongside Peter Verstrate (a consultant and food scientist), the two later founded MosaMeat. Their initial project took off when Google co-founder Sergey Brin reached out to them through his private investment firm. Brin suggested a burger taste-testing event could raise much-needed awareness. Verstrate explained,
“The public had only seen people in white coats staring at purple fluid, and that’s really not what people associate with meat. He asked if we could make a product, something tangible, so we could show that this technology has the potential to work in the future.”
Several more startups have since been founded with the same goal: bringing a cultured food product to shelves. The resulting ethical benefits would be manifold. Current production of meat generates 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The emission from cultured meat, however, is negligible. Similarly, switching to cultured meat could result in a 99% reduction in land usage and up to a 96% reduction in water.
Lastly, cultured food would result in millions of cows being saved, reducing the required bovine population from 1.3 billion to thousands — a big plus for some consumers and investors. For chickens, this number would be even higher. Presently, 3,000 chickens are slaughtered every second.
Verstrate believes cultured meat could bring progress to a variety of ethical problems.
“It ticks all the boxes. It just makes no sense not to pursue this technology.”
Yet a few potential hurdles still stand in the way such as scaling, marketing, and price. Verstrate anticipates cultured meat being sold in three years as a premium product on a small, local scale. However, it will take a few additional years before entering retail markets. When the time does come, MosaMeat will be prepared with a scaling method they see as achievable.
Other companies have designed similar plans too. Yuki Hanyu is the CEO of Integriculture, the only clean-meat company operating in the entirety of Asia. His company is working on a scalable method they call the flow-process, where a continuously flowing pipe is used to grow the cells in lieu of a large tank.
Hanyu believes mass-producing cultured food is just as achievable as manufacturing yogurt.
“Cell cultures are similar to yogurt factories or anything involving fermentation because they both involve growing microorganisms in large cells. Whether its yeast or muscle cells, all these processes are quite similar.”
Hanyu and his company are currently aiming for a price around US$6.00 per kilogram, similar to the wholesale price of meat. To give their product the edge, they are also looking into additional marketing incentives such as health benefits. The ability to produce meat in a lab gives the producer control over its content, and subsequently, healthiness. Hanyu said,
“We are thinking of a designer meat: an engineered meat that never could occur from nature and is better for your health. Beef with fish fat, for example, would be healthier, though we still need to see how it tastes.”
Indeed, the taste will also play a significant role in consumers’ willingness to buy a product. Verstrate noted that burgers currently sold at supermarkets already have added seasoning and flavoring. Cultured meat will likely be no different.
Tests conducted by MosaMeat predict around 50% of consumers would be at least willing to try the product. In general, Verstrate has encountered much less resistance than originally expected.
“People seem to agree more or less that things are getting out of hand with the meat industry and that something needs to change in the future.”
A growing portion of this interest stems from Asia. MosaMeat has been invited to showcase their meat at a food exhibit in the PyeongChang Olympics. Asian governments have also reached out to inquire about the education required to normalize the concept. As portions of Asia show increasing interest in meat, cultured food could become the solution needed to keep the food industry sustainable for the foreseeable future.
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