This is not a drill: lab-grown meat is becoming a thing. Well, nearly. And it’s been in the works for quite some time now. Remember when Winston Churchill predicted the mass production of meat through lab-grown techniques rather than animal slaughtering? Perhaps not, but let’s go back 87 years ago, to 1931.
Aside from his household status as a former British Prime Minister, Churchill is also well known for being an army officer and writer, penning many essays on his thoughts and opinions of the future. In his article ‘Fifty Years Hence,’ he predicted that, “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium,” (ABC, 2018).
It’s been more than 50 years, but Churchill wasn’t too far from the reality. Clean meat, craft meat, in vitro or lab-grown – call it what you will. This synthetic meat is manufactured by taking muscle stem cells from a living animal then using it to culture tissue to imitate regular meat harvested from traditional farming. The first edible sample was made in 2002 using the cells of a goldfish, creating imitation fish fillets. Since then, many organisations have taken up the challenge to produce meat that tastes and feels exactly like real meat, as well as being commercially feasible. In 2008, animal rights organisation PETA offered a $1 million prize to the first company who could bring lab-grown chicken meat to consumers by 2012. Although none were successful, many have definitely taken the right step towards creating a viable product.
As of 2012, more than 30 labs around the world have announced their dedication to researching ways to successfully create this cultured meat. Dutch professor and scientist Mark Post is the brains behind the first burger made slaughter free. He unveiled and ate the $325000 burger in front of a captured audience and has since co-founded Mosa Meat to attract venture capital and bring the burgers to commercial consumers. Other companies like Jerusalem-based Future Meat Technologies have also joined in the ranks of animal-free meat production, allowing the budding industry to gain traction through healthy competition.
Future Meat Technologies boasts of an imitation-meat-production system, sans the infamous secret ingredient ‘FBS.’ For many companies, to attain the same texture and taste of regular beef, FBS, also known as foetal bovine serum, would be used. It is a process which extracts the blood of the foetus still in its mother’s womb, a process which also kills the foetus. Not only expensive, this cruel practice goes against one of the reasons why cultured meat is so sought after. Thanks to new insights and technologies, the same texture and taste of real meat can be imitated without FBS.
Why the whole hype though? Well, cultured meat isn’t only for those advocating animal rights. It’s also an opportunity to live a healthier lifestyle. Since the meat is man-made, it can be created with a lower fat content and higher nutrient and protein content. Not only that, but the world is slowly becoming more aware of our impact on the earth which has negatively affected the environment. Many vegetarians and vegans choose to live a meat-free life because they feel socially responsible for the damage the livestock industry has caused. Not only a major source of land and water degradation, the industry contributes to acid rain and the degeneration of coral reefs, and is a major driver of deforestation, responsible for a minimum of 51% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions according to various reports. In Latin America alone, 70% of the Amazon rainforest has been turned into land for grazing (Sustainable Table, 2018).
To say the least, a switch to cultured meat would be a gamechanger. The biggest hurdle is whether people would want to eat it. It’s pretty hard to imitate the juicy, meaty flesh of a sizzling steak, and for those used to its taste, a poorly made replica would hardly be a substitute. Mark Post’s first taste of his own burger says it all: “It was dry, there was no fat in it yet, so it wasn’t perfect. But it tasted meaty…the mouth-feel was the same as the feel you get from a regular hamburger,” (ABC, 2017). Not bad, but not the same as what people are used to. However, that was back in 2013 and a lot has changed. In just three and a half years the production of cultured meat dropped from its original $325000 price point to $11.36, so who’s to say that now it wouldn’t taste like real meat?
Even if it is unpopular in the mainstream market, there is still a need for it. In recent years the demand for meat has increased, and it doesn’t seem likely to stop. In Australia alone, people eat more than their body weight in meat each year, averaging 92kg per person, which is triple the amount of meat recommended by health guidelines (Sustainable Table, 2018). Meeting the needs of meat lovers will no longer be sustainable as less land becomes available for livestock.
If there’s to be a future for meat, it will definitely be found in a lab.