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Understanding a new frontier in protein
Could lab grown meat – or cultured meat be the sustainable solution to eating meat? Protein is vital to our health, and as global populations grow and consumer preferences change, we will need to produce more of it, more sustainably, from more sources. According to the CSIRO’s National Protein Roadmap, by 2050 it’s estimated we will need to produce 60 per cent more food to feed an expected 9.7 billion people worldwide. Currently, 75 percent of the world’s food is produced from five animals and 12 plants. While we need solutions from science to help create these new markets, we can’t just do what we’ve done before.
To be completely honest, the idea of cultured meat, (also known as cultivated meat, or for those who love click bait, lab grown meat), feels a little like we’re erring on Brave New World territory. But while the industry around this third agricultural revolution started around ten years ago, the technology used to culture cells for medical research has been in existence for several decades.
Recreating meat alternatives isn’t new. You only need to walk into your local grocery store and there are whole sections dedicated to plant-based alternatives. The difference here is that cultured meat is in fact real meat; it’s just produced differently. To understand this new frontier in protein, how it could benefit our environment, and how we can we expect people’s food preferences will change when food is so intrinsic to culture, Green + Simple spoke with Professor Paul Wood AO FTSE Adjunct Professor, Monash University, and Ellen Dinsmoor, COO for Vow to uncover all the questions you’re probably asking yourself right now too.
At its core, to create cultured meat, a small piece of tissue is taken from an animal, in the same way you would perform a human biopsy. Within that tissue, there are generally many types of cells such as fat cells, muscle cells, and connective tissue cells. Those cells are frozen and stored at a specific temperature, until it’s time to grow a specific type of cell.
At that time, it’s essentially placed in a petri dish, and surrounded with a liquid of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients – called media. The cells eat those vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, and then they cluster, and grow.
As they grow, the cells are taken out of the petri dish and placed in a larger container, and fed more media where they bump against one another, and grow until eventually there are enough clustering cells to produce actual food products. From start to finish (or cell to plate), it’s roughly a two-to-six-week process for the Vow group, with their first product projected to hit the market within coming months.
You have to wonder, right? But as confirmed by the expert’s, cultured meat is indeed meat.
“It’s very much real meat, in the sense that when you look at the nutritional profile of a muscle cell that we grow compared to the muscle cell in a piece of meat you’d buy in a grocery store, they’re the same,” explains Dinsmoor.
“It’s just that the method of production, and a lot of the elements involved ranging from environmental aspects to ethical concerns that people might have, all of those look quite different in the process of making cultured meat.”
For those in the “ewwww” camp right now, you’re not alone. It’s a lot to take in, and truth be told, if you preview a video of the process, it’s confronting. You do have to think though, if we were describing or watching in detail the process of meat production as we know it today, the word confronting may well be an understatement.
Unlike our current process, no animals are harmed in the production of cultured meat, and according to Dinsmoor, one biopsy can lead to the production of tonnes of meat.
“There’s some nifty science involved but if you imagine the way cells grow is that they split, and double and continuously double. In round numbers if we take one biopsy from one animal there’s probably thousands if not millions of cells in that. One very small biopsy could feed the town, the village, the city in a way that we might have aspirationally thought of from a historical sense.”
That all sounds great in theory. But what about the costs associated with cellular meat and is this something we can expect will be available to the masses?
“This is a high value product for niche markets,” says Professor Wood.
And that’s because the biggest problem you have when working with cells is that you must avoid contamination.
“The sort of facility required, is not going to be a food grade facility, (but) a high-tech facility because they’re growing cells in a sterile environment. This is a biological system, and cells are biological creatures, so they won’t grow over certain densities, they won’t grow without very specialized media,” says Wood.
“The problem is it’s costly. And the challenge I think for the industry is going to be to get their costs down to an area where they can compete.”
Beyond the high cost of this technology, Professor Woods flags scalability.
“I think this technology is a niche market in western countries. I work in Africa and India with smallholder farmers. They can’t even eat their own product because they have to sell it to get income for the family. They consume milk from animals because they need animal protein, but they’ll sell the meat because it’s too pricey.
So, this technology is no solution for the bulk of the world’s population. People talk about the need to feed 10 billion people by 2050, well we know where those people are going to be, they’re in Africa, they’re in India, they’re not in New York, London, Sydney. These are not solutions for the developing nations, the developing population at all.”
Perhaps not until the costs associated with production decrease.
Regenerative solutions won’t always fit the mold, and as it would appear, cultured meat is an idea that’s positioned right outside of the box.
“According to Vow’s research and life cycle data analysis, cultured meat has the potential to be 95-96 per cent more efficient than meat production we know today. That’s simply because it’s a different process from start to finish,” says Dinsmoor.
“Cultured meat can be produced using wholly renewable resources. You can power cultured meat manufacturing facilities using solar energy or other renewable power, and these facilities don’t require the inputs or even land requirements that you might see with traditional animal husbandry.”
Today, our meat production requires space for agricultural work, which has a heavy environmental cost on the land, but also in transporting product from where it’s grown and produced to where it’s packaged and sold.
Essentially cultured meat facilities can be based anywhere, which decreases the environmental impact associated with the distribution of that product. Dinsmoor concurs, “Cultured meat is way less land intensive, far more durable when it comes to renewable energy, and there’s much more potential to have these facilities located in close proximity to urban areas for really easy, environmentally friendly distribution.”
It must be said that creating cultured meat is an energy intensive process. Indeed, just managing the heat generation from the method is considerable, so renewable energy is key to its sustainable success.
Professor Woods reiterates, “Oxford University have published papers saying that unless this technology uses entirely renewable energy sources it will not be more sustainable. Yes, it will have a smaller land footprint, it will probably use less water but even that’s debatable.”
No one said that pioneering new solutions would be a straightforward task, but it would seem that to ensure cultured meat ticks the sustainability box, the process will require buy-in at every level.
While Professor Wood explains that currently, “we don’t know what the product is going to be, so we don’t know the nutritional value of the product,” what we do know is that according to Meat and Livestock Australia, Australian livestock face several endemic diseases that adversely affect animal health and welfare, as well as the profitable production of red meat. Essentially there is bacteria in some of the meat we currently consume. But that isn’t necessarily in the cells of the meat.
“When you think about meat, the biggest problem with bacteria is the post slaughter, the animal itself, the meat doesn’t have bacteria otherwise you’d have a sick animal. What happens is that if you don’t have very good standards at slaughter then you get faecal contamination of the carcass. That’s why our slaughterhouses are so heavily inspected because we can’t afford to have contamination of the carcass. The meat itself is not contaminated, it’s generally surface contamination,” explains Professor Wood.
“When it comes to cultured meat, the reason it’s free from (toxins), is that we can’t grow cells if they have bacteria. A muscle cell that we grow has no immune system, so the cells that we produce must be free from toxins to live.
From a raw nutritional perspective, cultured meat and regular meat may be very similar, but from the perspective of overall quality and the broader risk to the everyday consumer and what they have access to, I do think (cultured meat) is notably better,” says Dinsmoor.
I guess the variable here is in what happens when cultured meat is harvested and blended with plant-based materials. At that stage in the process, we have to assume that cultured meat is no longer sterile and could face the similar surface contamination issues as seen in traditional husbandry. Ultimately as with standard meat, cultured meat will have a shelf life, we just don’t know what that shelf life is going to look like yet.
We know, it’s a lot to digest, and although it’s not available in commercial quantities yet, it’s worth considering how you might feel when cultured meat is readily available. While there’s only one product (hello cultured chicken nuggets!) currently on market, in Singapore, according to Dinsmoor, we’re likely to see small scale, targeted distribution with specific restaurants and partners rolled out until consumers further understand the concept, and manufacturing ramps up.
Of all the companies in the cultured meat space, many are looking to recreate meat that exists today. They take cells from chickens, pigs, cows, and fish and grow those cells to create chicken nuggets, sausages, burgers. Vow looks at this a bit differently and uses technology to do something different, to create something that stands on its own legs (no pun intended). They’re experimenting with many different types of cells.
“We don’t necessarily want to recreate what exists today,” Dinsmoor says.
“We have roughly fifteen species in our cell library, and the intent of that isn’t to be a PR stunt. We genuinely believe in the future. When we can grow many different types of cells, people are going to want to eat what tastes good, and that might be different from what we have today. You might want to eat what is nutritious and that might be different from what we currently have access to. We eat (what we currently eat) simply because we’ve been able to domesticate (certain proteins) historically, not because chicken tastes better than anything else that’s out there.”
While Dinsmoor wasn’t about to divulge details around Vow’s impending first product to market, Green + Simple will eagerly await the press release over the coming months.
Needless to say, this industry as a whole is going to be an interesting space to watch. The overarching premise might feel obscure right now, but there are clear examples of our food preferences changing throughout history.
When you consider, for example, that up until the 1980’s selling sashimi in the USA was illegal, and now it’s available in Walgreens; or decades before, breakfast ingredients consisted of one grain (oats), and now thanks to food processing technology we have a whole modern cereal category, we’re no strangers to using new unique technology to create food that is different to what previously existed.
With all that said, never say never.
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