07 Dec Why world’s first approval for cultured meat is good for us all
In the world of food and sustainability, news doesn’t come much bigger than the first ever regulatory approval for the sale of cultured meat. In early December, San Francisco-based Food tech company, Eat Just, Inc., announced that it had been given the go-ahead to sell its cultured chicken in Singapore. For the first time ever, meat produced from the stem-cells of a chicken will go on commercial sale to consumers. It will be small-scale at first. Really not much more than proof of concept.
Yet, the significance to the future of factory farming and sustainability couldn’t be greater. The world now rears and slaughters 77 billion farmed animals every year for food. Two-thirds of those are estimated to live lives of misery on factory farms.
What if we could switch mass-meat production from the factory farm to bioreactors? Imagine how much less cruelty there would be in the world.
In this age of climate and nature emergency, rising meat consumption creates a growing problem. Meat and dairy production already dominate the land surface of the planet. Half the world’s habitable land is agricultural, four-fifths of which are devoted to meat and dairy. As production continues to expand, so nature is wiped away. In addition, the livestock sector globally produces more greenhouse gases than the direct emissions from all the world’s planes, trains and cars put together.
Cultured meat, on the other hand, holds out the prospect of large-scale meat production without the suffering involved in factory farming and with a fraction of the land use and greenhouse gas emissions. A benchmark study has shown cultured meat to be 98 per cent lower in land use and 80-95 per cent lower in greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventionally produced meat products.
Eating more plant-based alternatives to meat is one way to reduce the pressure on the planet.
However, we live in paradoxical times when the number of vegans and vegetarians are increasing yet so is demand for meat. Latest consumption figures show that per capita consumption of meat has continued to grow in Europe, the USA and worldwide.
Which begs the question, could cultured meat be the game-changer?
Unlike plant-based ‘meats’ headlined by the Impossible Burger, Beyond Meat or Quorn, cultured meat at the cellular level is undisputedly meat. Plant-based alternatives draw their protein from sources such as soya and peas.
Lab-grown meat, ‘clean’ meat, ‘slaughter-free’ meat, ‘crafted’ meat; whatever you want to call it on the other hand is meat from the cells of animals. It is grown in a culture using the same kind of cells that would otherwise make up an animal.
The cells used to start off the process are harvested from a living animal using a harmless biopsy. These stem cells from the fat or muscle of an animal are placed in a culture medium – a nutrient-rich soup – that allows them to grow in a bioreactor similar to those used for fermenting beer and yoghurt. No GMO is required.
The cells then do just what comes naturally: they multiply, and to staggering effect: a single sample from a cow being enough to produce 80,000 quarter pounders.
Which brings us back to the historic breakthrough of a US-based company getting the go-ahead to sell cultured chicken in Singapore. The news paves the way for the first commercial launch of the product that promises to revolutionise the way the world looks at meat. Serving in one restaurant to start off with will be a huge milestone reached. The company sees it as just the beginning.
I spoke with the man behind the breakthrough, Josh Tetrick, the charismatic CEO and co-founder of Eat Just. He’s a man on a mission. And it’s all about stopping animal cruelty and saving the planet. When I asked him about the profusion of companies moving in to develop cultured meat, whether he was worried about the competition, he was clear that for him, it’s as much cause-driven as commercial.
“We have an urgency. A problem that every single second we delay is creating more pain and more degradation and takes us further from who we are [as a species] … if you told me right now that some other company had solved this problem in the next handful of years, more human beings are eating meat that didn’t require killing an animal, and it had nothing to do with us, sign me up, I’ll just go on vacation,” Tetrick said.
Like Tetrick, I sense the urgency, the need for a big shift in meat consumption patterns if we are to stop the suffering of factory farming and leave a sustainable future for generations of people to come.
Which is why Singapore’s precedent-setting regulatory approval couldn’t have come at a better time. There is now a new meat in town with the potential to transform the global food market. And I for one will be only too happy to share a celebratory meal of pain-free chicken from a bioreactor.
Never will chicken have tasted so good.