Culture shock: Cultured meat is becoming a reality

What is it?

You may have seen the topic of cultured meat cropping up in recent news and be wondering what it is. Cultured meat, also known as artificial or lab-grown meat, is an up-and-coming alternative to traditional meat. It is meat not from a farm, but from a lab, with technology working its magic. As awareness continues to spread of the damage traditional farming can do to our environment, alongside the ever growing vegetarian and vegan movements, researchers have turned to science to develop a potentially more sustainable source of protein for consumers.

The production of artificial meat has been conducted through largely similar processes by most companies that have been bold enough to try it out. A small cell is extracted from a live animal, whether that be a chicken, a pig or a cow, and placed into a bioreactor with a precise dose of nutrients and vitamins to force the cell to divide and grow. After a period of time, the end result is that meat is grown from the individual cell, leaving no need for slaughter.

Current progress

An upsurge in attention to the movement has come shortly after Singapore permitted the sale of lab-grown meat in December 2020. The nation was the first in the world to give the all-clear to this new and controversial idea and is slowly starting to put the idea into practice. Eat Just, Inc., a San Francisco-based company focused on the development of alternative protein sources, became the first company in the world to sell their cultivated products to the market. The company’s subsidiary, Good Meat, is currently working alongside JW Marriott Singapore South Beach Cantonese-style restaurant to provide cultured chicken on its menu as an alternative to conventional chicken. They have also partnered with mobile food delivery service, Foodpanda, to provide for the home delivery of their cultured chicken products from 20 May 2021.

The progressive approach taken by Singapore has inspired organisations throughout the world to push for approval of sale in their countries and these efforts are now being seen in the UK. Oxford University’s spin-out, Ivy Farm Technologies, have recently announced their aim to produce 12,000 tonnes of cultured pork per year by 2025, the equivalent to saving the lives of 170,000 pigs. The company has recently launched a £16m fundraising campaign, with all funds going towards their research and development facilities. Dr Ross Tucker, co-founder of Ivy Farm Technologies, has stressed that the way we currently produce and consume meat is not sustainable and the use of cultured meat is a “silver bullet” in fighting that, providing high quality meat whilst also saving the planet.

Challenges

The desire to go meatless is not faced without challenge. As the movement is still in its infancy, the costs associated with rolling it out are high. The initial research and development of the product costs millions, and that, paired with the additional cost of extracting the stem cells from a live animal, make for a demanding operation. This is a major difficulty faced by many start-up companies that do not have the funding in place, which is why many are turning to funding campaigns, such as Ivy Farm Technologies. Over time, the costs to produce these products will reduce, but for the meantime, large financial backing is required for any start-up.

Along with that, will it be difficult to convince the public to consume lab-grown meat rather than conventional meat? As it currently stands, research shows that there is little awareness of the concept by those who are not already vegan or vegetarian. Whilst vegans or vegetarians may be actively looking for alternative sources of protein, those still eating conventional meat may not feel the need to make the swap. Questions are also arising around the taste of the products and others simply do not like the idea.

Regulatory approval is necessary, and in Europe that is estimated to take another 2-3 years. It is doubtful the UK will be any quicker.

The future

Upscaling consumption of artificial meat will take time for the public to accept and big efforts are required to change societal norms. Nevertheless, efforts to evolve remain strong throughout the world. Eat Just, Inc. has just successfully secured $170m worth of funding to upscale production of its first ever cultured chicken product. The funds are to be injected into its leading product with a view to eventually increasing public consumption and introducing their product to the US market. There are now over 70 start-ups across Asia, Europe and America working on all ranges of meat and poultry, and attempts are being made by companies within Europe to have cultured meat on shop shelves by 2023.

Overall, it is believed that lab-grown meat will replace conventional meat at some point in the future, however, only time and funding will tell how soon that will be. How cultured do you want your steak?

This article was co-authored by Nicola Kelly, Trainee Solicitor.

Food & Drink

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