With the environment and food security being issues of particular urgency in our increasingly crowded world, clean meat is coming to the rescue.
There’s nothing like a good piece of steak. Served with a glass of good red wine, it is one of the most classic delights in the world of gastronomy, worthy of long hours of discussion and debate among gourmands, who would ruminate over their details: grass- or grain-fed, the marbling, the pedigree of the cattle, their farms, their brands, the cut, the style and skill of cooking.
But as we hurtle towards a world population of 9.8 billion in 2050, the question of producing enough to feed the world is a real one. And to do so sustainably without first killing off the environment (and in turn, ourselves).
Of all the foods produced, industrial meat production is the most resource intensive. Water, land and feed are needed for rearing the animals we eat; and their waste—huge amounts of it when you think of massive industrial farms—leads to run-off into the environment. What does this cost the earth? Consider these statistics: 33 per cent of the world’s arable land is used to grow feed crop for livestock and 26 per cent is used for grazing. The amount of land and feed given to livestock rearing is a growing concern among experts in food security. According to studies, the total supply of crops being fed to animals can actually feed at least four billion people. Livestock rearing generates more greenhouse gases than transport does, and consumes a shocking amount of water. In South America, 70 per cent of previously forested land in the Amazon is now used mainly for rearing cattle. The list goes on. Our beloved steak is a particular culprit, sucking in more resources than any other meat: beef requires 28 times more land, 11 times more water and gives off five times more gas emissions than pork or chicken. Compared to vegetables like potatoes, wheat and rice, the impact is even more pronounced: each calorie of beef requires 160 times more land and produces 11 times more greenhouse gases.
Enter clean meat—or meat that is grown in a lab. It is not to be confused with meat substitutes like Beyond Burger, recently available at Redmart and made of pea protein with beet juice to mimic blood.
At the cutting edge of food technology, clean meat companies like Future Meat Technologies, Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat, Finless Foods and SuperMeat are among the pioneers of creating meat in labs. Futurists like Richard Branson and Bill Gates, and even huge food producers like Tyson Foods and Cargill have invested in American company Memphis Meats—a reflection of things to come.
While methods of production vary among companies, the fundamentals are the same: essentially clean meat is meat grown from cells, which are incubated with heat and fed with nutrients like salts and sugars in order to ‘grow’. The idea is to trick the cells into believing they are still in the animal’s body and have them continue to reproduce, turning into fat, muscle or connective tissue. Or in the words of Israeli clean meat company SuperMeat, it is “high quality meat produced independent of the animal’s body”.
Another important ingredient in the manufacture of clean meat is protein which is ‘fed’ to the cells. This is a serum which is typically made from animal blood. Fetal bovine serum has traditionally been the serum used for lab-grown meat. There are two problems with this: for one, it is very expensive, thus making it commercially non-viable. Secondly, it defeats the intention of creating meat that is cruelty-free. More recently, though, some companies have been making headway into developing plant-based serums and making the cost of its production more commercially viable. So much so that Matt Ball, senior media relations specialist at Good Food Institute, a US non-profit organisation that promotes clean meat alternatives, says: “According to the most optimistic projection, clean meat will be an option in a restaurant before the end of 2018. More likely, it will take some more years for production to scale such that clean meat appears in grocery stores. Clean meat will almost certainly be in restaurants first. If I had to bet, I would say the first products available to the general public will be ground beef or chicken.”
The Case for Clean Meat
Seen as at least partially an answer to the issues of food security and the environment, the promise of clean meat is not to stop eating conventional farm-raised, four-legged meat altogether, but to eat much less of it. With steaks grown in a petri dish, and burgers from a vat, it is easy to see how clean meat will help reduce the impact of livestock production on our planet. It will cut down on the need for massive livestock operations, and along with it the huge demand for land, water and even more land for growing livestock feed. And then there’s also the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, for which 18 per cent is attributable to livestock production.
While it is still early days yet, the potential for clean meat is promising. It can be healthier for our waistlines, as the make-up of clean meat can be customised to include healthy omega-3 fatty acids rather than saturated animal fat. Technically sterile, the meat does not involve slaughter before getting to the supermarket shelves, and it is worth noting that most cases of meat contamination happens during the slaughter process via cross contamination with the intestines. The risk of other diseases may decrease as well, such as avian flu which can transfer from animals to humans. What’s more, unlike conventional meat, clean meat does not contain antibiotics and hormones.
And while conventional farmers may protest, clean meat is also bringing meat production to a whole new level of efficiency. “To get meat now, you start with an animal cell—a fertilised egg—and you grow it into a full animal. You then kill the animal and eat some of its flesh, discarding the brains, bone, and blood. With clean meat, you start with a few animal cells, and you grow them directly into meat, without having to create an entire creature… without the brains, bone, or blood.”
Which also strengthens the case for a more humane approach to livestock farming, given that there is no slaughtering. Ball adds, “What is unethical is how we treat these feeling, thinking individuals. For example, chickens have been genetically manipulated to grow six times faster than they would naturally. They are given various drugs and growth promoters, including antibiotics. They live crowded into warehouses in their own waste. They are not covered by the Humane Slaughter Act.”
So how does clean meat taste? “Clean meat looks like meat and it tastes like meat. This isn’t surprising, because it is meat down to the cellular level,” says Ball. “It will taste like the flesh of the animal from whom the cell biopsy was taken. If it starts from a fish cell, it will be just like eating fish today.” But we are still far from growing a ‘clean’ T-bone steak or lamb chop. “Clean meat companies will likely focus on scaling up production of chicken, ground beef, and sausage while they work on the challenges of things like lamb chops.”
Many experts cite cellular agriculture as the next revolution, and a viable answer to food security in our increasingly crowded world. But there are still hurdles yet to be crossed, most obviously getting past health standards and regulations, and then getting through the initial resistance of the trade and consumers to something so fundamentally different from conventional farming.
But when the times comes, it would certainly give steak connoisseurs quite another set of criteria to pore and ruminate over, far far beyond grain- or grass-fed.
This article was first published in Wine & Dine’s May/June 2018 issue – Future Foods.