Why lab meat is the future


Meat products can now be grown in a lab

Meat products can now be grown in a lab (Image: GETTY)

When Winston Churchill was going through his wilderness years – the period between 1929 and 1939 when he was out of favour and out of power – he was asked to write an article about the world “Fifty Years Hence”.

The resulting piece appeared in the December 1931 issue of Strand magazine and did not disappoint in the boldness of its predictions. But one in particular stood out.

“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,” he wrote.

Churchill was over-optimistic about the time-scale – there was no sign of what is now called lab meat in 1981 – but he was spoton when it came to the concept.

The first lab-grown meat product, a hamburger, was produced by University of Maastricht Professor Mark Post, who has been described as the godfather of cultured meat, in 2013. And since then progress has been swift.

Silicon Valley start-ups such as Finless Fish and Memphis Meats are working on products as varied as fish fillets, meatballs, chicken nuggets – even duck à l’orange.

The first lab meat is expected to go on sale in the US before the end of the year and a report this week from the London-based Adam Smith Institute argued that two long-term benefits of test-tube meat would be a sectoral reduction in greenhouse emissions of up to 96 per cent and the freeing up of 99 per cent of the land used in farming worldwide.

So just how do these companies go about creating their products?

Visionary Winston Churchill

Visionary Winston Churchill (Image: GETTY)


The chickens are not killed in the process. We look for cells that have potential to renew, put them in an environment where they can grow and feed them water and nutrients – vitamins, minerals, proteins, sugars – and let them grow.

Eric Schulz, Memphis Meats’ senior scientist

Memphis Meats’ senior scientist Eric Schulze recently explained the process as follows: “We start by harvesting cells from high-quality, living chickens that might otherwise go into conventional meat.

“The chickens are not killed in the process. We look for cells that have potential to renew, put them in an environment where they can grow and feed them water and nutrients – vitamins, minerals, proteins, sugars – and let them grow.”

The four to six weeks it takes for harvested cells to grow into a tender edible chicken is comparable to the time it takes a chicken to reach adulthood in today’s modern poultry industry.

But it is an expensive process. When Professor Post produced his pioneering burger in 2013, the cost of creating just one patty was put at $325,000 (£250,000) and last year Memphis Meats estimated it spent $9,000 (£6,900) producing just one pound of labgrown chicken meat.

Cow

There is no killing of animals in this food making process (Image: GETTY)

Pioneers in the field of Frankenstein food reckon economies of scale will be their salvation. “We feel our challenges [related to price] are similar to those of other technology products,” said Steve Myrick, Memphis Meats’ vice-president of business development.

“By reducing input costs and doing it on a much larger scale we’ll be able to get our prices down.”

Already Professor Post’s company Mosa Meat – which is based in the Netherlands and counts Google co-founder Sergey Brin among its investors – reckons it can produce lab-grown burgers for less than $12 per patty.

But perhaps one of the earliest viable lab-meat products will be one that replaces a natural animal product that already sells at a premium price and attracts a disproportionate amount of opposition: foie gras.

Professor Post produced his pioneering burger in 2013

Professor Post produced his pioneering burger in 2013 (Image: PA)

In order to develop the level of fattiness that makes the goose liver pate so highly prized, producers force-feed the birds a daily dose of grain that is far greater than they’d eat naturally, causing the liver to balloon up to 10 times its normal size.

It was concern over this practice that persuaded Arnold Schwarzenegger, the then-governor of California, to sign a bill in 2004 that outlawed the production and sale of foie gras from force-fed birds by 2012.

The law faced repeated challenges from the farming lobby but in September 2017 a federal court upheld the ban, meaning it is now illegal to sell foie gras in the Golden State if the birds were force-fed.

Despite this, the delicacy remains so popular that the value of the global foie gras market is put at $3billion – and lab meat company Hampton Creek is determined to grab a piece of the action.

Arnold Schwarzenegger former governor of California

Arnold Schwarzenegger former governor of California (Image: GETTY)

Sauteed foie gras

Sauteed foie gras (Image: GETTY)

One journalist who tasted its latest attempt at producing the perfect cultured foie gras earlier this year concluded: “The flavour was impressive. The pate was rich, buttery, savoury, and very decadent, just as one would expect.”

But Hampton Creek has ambitions far beyond foie gras. It has drawn up models for a 400,000 square foot meat production facility complete with 200 bioreactors, producing 76lb of endangered bluefin tuna per second, alongside clean Kobe beef and chicken meat.

Naturally, the pastoral farming lobby is observing all these developments with something approaching horror.

In April, the US Cattlemen’s Association called on the US Department of Agriculture to ban the term “meat” for alternative meat products – including those derived from animal cells – a move that was supported by this country’s National Farmers Union.

If Churchill’s prediction proves correct, however, all their manoeuvring may prove to be as futile as rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.



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