We’re all trying to eat less meat. Whether it’s squeamishness of killing other beings or the startlingly high greenhouse gas emissions, people are seeking an alternative. Lab-grown meat is just that. It may sound like something from science-fiction, but it’s clear that humanity needs to try something different. Let’s demystify this foodstuff of the future.

Simply put, clean meat (also known as cultured meat, lab-grown meat or invitro meat) is meat that is grown outside of an animal’s body. We can isolate various types of stem cells which can become muscle cells. Provided with adequate nutrients, a couple of such cells can, in principle, proliferate to generate large quantities of muscle tissue.

As futuristic as the idea might seem, it is not new. As early as 1932 Winston Churchill spoke of “the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium”. He hopen we could escape this absurdity in 50 years’ time [1]. More than 50 have passed since Churchill’s remarkable claim, and we have yet to replace the traditional way of obtaining meat, i.e. raising and slaughtering animals in factory farms. We are, however, getting closer. Companies like Finless Foods, Just, Mephis Meat, and Mosa Meat, are on the forefront of developing the technology necessary to produce animal products without the animals.

It’s not just meat either. Eggs, dairy, and leather are also avenues for introducing cellular agriculture alternatives. The biggest corporations in the meat industry (or, soon, the protein industry) like Tyson, and investors like Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Bill Gates are pumping tens and millions of dollars into start-ups dedicated to developing clean meat [2]. The obvious question underlying these ventures is why? Why would we be interested in growing muscle in a petri dish?

Food safety

Factory farmed animals live and die in overcrowded, unsanitary spaces. Due to how tightly the animals are packed, as well as fecal contamination, dangerous pathogens spread easily. E-coli, Salmonella, and Campylobacter, are all food-borne, and all lead  to millions of infections a year [3]. As much as 80% of antibiotics in America are fed to farm animals [4]. This is not only prevent outbreaks, which would be inevitable in factory farm conditions without antibiotics and hormones, but also to promote quicker growth. This is not only a waste of resources, but it’s actively harmful, as it leads to antibiotic resistance in humans.

greenhouse gas emissions aren’t our only crisis healtheuropa.eu

Clean meat circumvents this problem. All that is grown is the muscle itself, and it is grown in a lab, in sterile conditions. Paul Shapiro, the author of “Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World” points out that this is why the term “clean meat” was popularized. As Dr Mark Post, the CSO of Mosa Meat, puts it:

“People eat things all the time they don’t know anything about, and in this case, the more they know, the better they’ll feel about it. Right now they’re eating meat from animals who were doped up with all types of drugs and lived in terrible conditions. Why wouldn’t they want to switch to something so much cleaner?” [5].

When we hear the word ‘cleaner’, in these eco-conscious times, we automatically think of planet-destroying qualities. Pollution, greenhouse gas emissions. It’s arguably in this domain that lab-grown meat is the ultimate ‘clean’ alternative.

The environment: greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, resources.

Animal agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to global warming, equalling the entirety of transportation sector. A paper by Datar and Betti (2010) estimates it accounts for between 15% and 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions [6]. Clean meat, in comparison, would have greenhouse gas emissions a substantial 78–96% lower [7].

greenhouse gas emissions diagram – epa.gov

Additionally, it takes 3900, 4900 and 15500m­3 of water to produce 1 tonne of chicken, pork, or beef meat respectively (that is, producing 1kg of chicken meat requires 3900 litres of water). For comparison, 1kg of soybeans only requires 1789 litres [8]. This is because we’re moving up the food chain. The animals we use for meat not only eat plants (which require water), but also use up additional drinking water and service water. It has been estimated that cultured beef could require 96% less water than traditionally farmed beef [9], which is a staggering difference on a planet where 1.1 billion people lack access to water.

Finally, there is pollution. The plants grown to feed the animals intended for slaughter are sprayed with pesticides and fungicides, which end up in the ground and in water, especially if overused. The animals themselves produce about 130 times more waste than the human population [10]. Not all of this can be used as fertilizer or safely stored, so again, it can end up polluting land and water.

Extreme greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, pollution. They could be avoided with clean meat. The muscle cells in Petri dishes need plant feed to grow and divide, but they are more efficient at turning what they’re fed into meat. Uma Valeti, a co-founder of Mephis Meats says “It takes twenty-three calories of inputs to produce one calorie of beef. Our production techniques are aiming to make this three to one.” [11]. The problems with waste and greenhouse gas emissions would also be massively reduced.

Meat consumption is increasing rapidly, especially in countries which are getting wealthier rapidly –  higher meat consumption and wealth seem to go hand in hand [12]. This means that all the problems outlined above will become more pressing in the coming decades, and the meat problem will urgently need a solution. We simply cannot afford to increase our greenhouse gas emissions.

Animal welfare

Since both the awareness of the grim details of factory farming and concern for animal welfare are on the rise, the ethical benefit of clean meat seems obvious. The stem cells can be taken from a living animal without hurting it in the process. It seems like a win-win. People don’t eat meat because they are cruel, and enjoy the fact that animals have to die to feed them. They simply do not have sufficiently good and affordable alternatives. If such alternatives were present, people would buy them. And yet, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts poll conducted in 2014, only 20% of Americans said they would eat lab-grown meat [13]. And although more recent, more detailed polls suggest that the support for clean meat is actually way higher, this could still be a hurdle. Introducing clean meat to the market will require public acceptance of the idea and of the product.

A cow, not just a breathing greenhouse gas emitter. Luke Stackpool via unsplash.com

The “yuck” factor

There is a good reason why Jason Matheny, the founder of New Harvest, a research institute dedicated to cellular agriculture, put a lot of effort into figuring out what name best to associate with lab-grown meat. ‘Lab-grown meat’, ‘in-vitro meat’, ‘test tube meat’, ‘synthetic meat’, and the humorously proposed ‘in meatro’ all induce what Paul Shapiro calls “the yuck factor”. People don’t want to be thinking about labs, test tubes, in-vitro fertilization, or synthetic things when thinking about food. The term ‘cultured meat’ was widely accepted for a while, but people still had a negative reaction to it, and got confused by the association with cultured cheese or yoghurt. In 2016, a Good Food Institute poll conclusively established that ‘clean meat’ was the preferred term among potential consumers.

This story about terminology laid out by Paul Shapiro might seem trivial, but it might be emblematic of a major problem clean meat will have to overcome. People might object to it as unnatural, or just plain odd. However, the majority of global meat consumption does not come from people who only want to eat natural, or healthy food. People in general buy whatever is cheap and easily available: processed meat, meat from fast food chains, factory farmed meat. We can only expect the majority of the population to switch to clean meat if clean meat is competitive in price and quality. This brings us to the other set of hurdles for introducing clean meat into the market: at the moment, it is too expensive to produce, and too unlike conventional meat.

The technology

The first clean burgers were produced by Dr Post and his team for over $300,000. Aside from being expensive, the process was quite labour intensive. Because there is no circulatory system present to transport nutrients, if a cell is not in direct contact with the culture medium (the feed for the cells), it dies. Dr Post had to grow tiny pieces of tissue in thousands of petri dishes and put them together to form the world’s first clean burgers.

Now, efficiency and affordability wasn’t exactly the point of this experiment – the point was to prove that it was possible to grow meat in a lab, but the problems faced by the burger team are still prevalent in more recent implementations of the technology. To grow large amounts of muscle tissue, an equivalent of a circulation system needs to be constructed to deliver nutrients and remove waste products like CO2. We also still don’t have reactors big and efficient enough to grow meat on a large scale.

The most significant difficulty on the scientists’ part, however, is formulating the optimal cell medium [14]. The standard supplements used for growing cells in general are animal-derived (e.g. bovine fetal serum), which is obviously unideal if what we’re aiming for is reducing the danger of contamination, as well as animal suffering. Plant-based feeds are being developed, but it might take a while before they’re cheap enough to make clean meat competitive on the protein market.

Nutrition and flavour

One of the reasons why clean meat isn’t exactly market-ready yet is that the muscle tissue I’ve been talking about throughout this post is just that – muscle tissue. Meat contains fat and connective tissue, both of which contribute massively to the structure, texture, and flavour. In terms of nutrition, lab-grown muscle tissue does not contain myoglobin – the protein that carries heme iron and gives meat its red colour. When Dr Post and his team made their seminal burgers, they had to add colouring (saffron and beet juice), because the tissue did not contain myoglobin.

This is more than just an aesthetic issue, though. If we want clean meat to be nutritionally equivalent to traditional meat, we need it to be a good source of iron. On the bright side, clean meat would allow for tweaking the nutritional content to make the end product healthier, e.g. by replacing some of the saturated fat with unsaturated fat and omega-3s.

What’s next?

According to projections, clean meat would require way less time, energy, land, water, pollution and cruelty than conventional meat. For now, it is too expensive, and the technology is not sufficiently developed to produce it on a mass scale. But this could change sooner than we think. In December 2020, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) approved clean chicken meat as safe for consumption and allowed for its sale. One chicken nugget (made by Eat Just) could currently sell for $50 a piece. The science behind clean meat, and public acceptance of it, might have a long way to go. But we are moving forward.

Now more than ever, the world needs new technologies. At the CVC, we want to be a launchpad for innovation. Have an idea? Want to get inspired? Be a part of building a greener future? We’d love for you to join us.

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  1. https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelpellmanrowland/2017/06/12/clean-meat-a-bold-prediction/
  2. https://www.thewrap.com/bill-gates-just-invested-in-this-clean-meat-startup/
  3. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272522939_Cultured_meat_from_muscle_stem_cells_A_review_of_challenges_and_prospects
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4638249/
  5. Shapiro, P. (2018). Clean meat: how growing meat without animals will revolutionize dinner and the world. Simon and Schuster. https://cleanmeat.com/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4648904/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4648904/
  8. https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Hoekstra_and_Chapagain_2006.pdf
  9. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/es200130u
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4648904/
  11. Shapiro, P. (2018). Clean meat: how growing meat without animals will revolutionize dinner and the world. Simon and Schuster. https://cleanmeat.com/
  12. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/meat-consumption
  13. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/04/21/men-more-optimistic-than-women-about-future-technological-changes/
  14. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1466856409001222

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