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The Meat Industry is About to Change

Singapore makes history as the first country ever to approve sales of lab-grown meat.

Photo by Eiliv-Sonas Aceron on Unsplash.

In the past years, several problems have been raised with the animal farming industry. To begin with, we have become increasingly aware of its large environmental impact. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the livestock sector is responsible for an estimate of 14.5% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Almost half of which comes from the production and processing of animal feed. This is additionally associated with high fresh water demands, land usage and consequent deforestation.

On top of the environmental issues, industrial farming also represents a major public health threat due to widespread overuse of antibiotics. The indiscriminate use of antibiotics as a method to prevent disease spreading in overcrowded farms allows animals to grown faster and therefore increases production. However, it leads to the emergence of multi-resistant bacteria, which can be extremely harmful to humans. This subject has become one of the main topics of discussion regarding post-Brexit trade deals between the United Kingdom and countries like Canada and the United States, which do not comply with the strict antibiotic restrictions imposed by the European Union. Standing by EU standards is tremendously important from a public health perspective, but it might put British animal farmers at a competitive disadvantage against less restrictive farming models.

Lastly, it is worth pointing out that millions of animals are slaughtered worldwide on a daily basis for meat production. From a personal standpoint, this is something that even if done according to the highest industry standards, which is often not the case, sounds unnecessarily excessive. Obviously, this is a subjective argument that resonates differently with different people, nevertheless the concern over animal welfare represents the third major issue commonly raised against animal farming.

Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur on Unsplash.

As a consequence of the growing public awareness regarding these problems, there has been an increase in interest for farmed meat substitutes. Plant-based alternatives are currently one of the most popular options as more people are committing to plant-based diets. However, a new product has just entered the market —cultured meat.

Cultured meat, also known as lab-grown meat, is produced from stem cells which grow in a nutritious medium that provides everything they need to survive and multiply. All this happens inside bioreactors, similar to the ones used in the production of beer or microalgae, in what essentially constitutes cellular agriculture. These stem cells are originally harvested from animal muscle tissue through a biopsy, which does not require the slaughtering of the animal. The first lab-grown hamburger was presented in 2013 by Dutch professor Mark Post at a London news conference. At the time, the production cost of the hamburger was 250 thousand euros.

Seven years later, Israeli start-up SuperMeat opens The Chicken — the first restaurant in the world to serve cultured meat. The Tel Aviv based restaurant served to test the consumers’ reaction to their chicken burgers made from cultured meat. The following month, on December 2nd of 2020, Singapore’s Food Agency approved the sale of laboratory-grown chicken meat produced by the United States company Eat Just. This makes Singapore the first and only country in the world to approve the sale of cultured meat. Eat Just chicken nuggets were sold at the 1880 restaurant and were the first commercial sale of cultured meat ever.

The idea behind cultured meat is to produce meat in a sustainable manner by tackling the problems of animal farming mentioned before. The first issue addressed by this new biotechnology is animal welfare. Given the origin of the stem cells used in the process, cultured meat is currently the most animal-friendly way to grow meat. Even though antibiotics are commonly used in animal cell cultures, these cells grow in a highly controlled environment which largely prevents microbial contamination. The risk for multi-resistant bacteria development is therefore minimal, this way addressing the public health concerns as well. Without the need to breed livestock, cultured meat also begins to address the environmental issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, land and water usage. Nonetheless there are some obstacles facing such a recent industry, beginning with its scale.

The small scale at which cultured meat is currently produce demands high energy expenses and consequent carbon emissions, offsetting its environmental benefits regarding this point. However, once the production is scaled up the industry is predicted to require less energy, water and land — when compared with conventional meat. Another consequence of the small scale and novelty of cultured meat is the elevated cost of its production — a consequence of high energy demand and expensive growth media.

The price of cultured meat was one of the major initial criticisms against the industry, but the optimization of the production processes has led to a steady decrease. The chicken nuggets made by Just Eat reportedly sold by 23 US dollars, which is within the range of a gourmet burger. However, the objective of companies like Eat Just is to ultimately lower costs enough to compete with conventional meat.

A third common criticism of the industry lies in its claim to be animal friendly. In fact, many companies, including Eat Just, use fetal bovine serum in their growth medium. This is an animal derived product commonly used in animal cell cultures for research and biomedical purposes. The serum is harvested from the blood of a fetus after it is removed from a slaughtered cow. Obviously, this goes against the idea that no animals are harmed in the process, but it is also something that will be address as the industry expands and companies experiment with different media options. Eat Just has reportedly stated that they will soon be using a plant-based serum, which was not available when the approval process in Singapore began.

At last, there are other issues such as differences in taste, public acceptance of cultured meat and the concerns over genetic manipulation of the meat produced. These will be most likely tackled each in its own way, be it production fine tuning, marketing campaigns or improvements on government-imposed regulations, which are already in place regarding genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Altogether, most of the criticism against cultured meat is either being addressed or will be addressed in the foreseeable future as the technology develops. This development will definitely be boosted by Singapore’s decision to approve cultured meat as a safe food product.

Synthetic meat has been mentioned in science fiction for years. Today it is a reality and tomorrow it may possibly be the most common way to produce meat.

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Gil Pires

Gil Pires

Junior Consultant | MSc in Biotechnology