Our hunger for meat is devouring forests worldwide1, with livestock fueling climate change.2 More and more eco-conscious consumers are joining the vegan movement across the world. But do we really need to give up on burgers, steaks and fried chicken for good? Maybe not, if a more eco-friendly entree makes it to our menu. How does lab-grown meat sound to you? It may be making its way to your plate sooner than you think.

Back in Medieval times3, meat banquets were the exclusive…meet-up…of the day for Aristocrats, while the closest a peasant could get to sheep was counting them as he or she fell asleep. In fact, meat-based diets didn’t become accessible until about 100 years ago, when railroads and refrigeration beefed up and allowed meatpackers to go mainstream.4 Between 1961 and 2007, the consumption of meat doubled worldwide.5 The rising demand fleshed out small-scale livestock producers into meat-churning beasts like Tyson or JBS. While this meat feast topped up the dinner plates of a wider population over the past few decades, the planet is counting the cost of what’s now an impactful obsession.

Globally, raising livestock releases about 15% of all man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.6 But why does farmed meat have such a huge carbon footprint? First, cows and sheep literally burp methane when digesting grass. The trouble is this gas is over 30 times more potent than CO2 in warming the planet.7 But the truth is meat production is just a waste of resources. Animals grazing requires a massive amount of land, which can’t be used for growing vegetables or planting trees. To add to that, more land is used for growing monoculture crops like soybeans to feed the animals. Overall, livestock pasturing and feeding account for 77% of farming land globally.8 It’s not exactly an efficient use of land and resources to grow crops to feed livestock, to slaughter and eat, to give our bodies the energy it needs. Cutting out the middleman and eating the grains and plants ourselves is far more efficient. But some people would…slaughter…for a T-bone steak. Though, every 1-Kg T-bone steak on your plate eats up 25 Kg of grain, fed to the now defunct cow, and drinks up about 15,000 Kg of water.9 Not exactly efficient.

So, what if you still want to enjoy roast turkey on Thanksgiving day without feeling guilty for the planet? …and for the turkey. You could go for plant-based meat, with Beyond Meat and Impossible on the forefront of the oxymoronic vegan meat world. Thanks to a number of partners and investors10, both companies are taking root all over this market, which was $1.4 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach $13.8 billion by 2027.11,12 Founded in 2009, Beyond Meat already had 6,000 stores across the US five years later.13 Just over the last year, the company’s stock rose by over 65% and their revenues are expected to triple by 2023.14

Impossible seems to be following a similar sizzling trend. Launched in 2016, their burger is now a menu staple of big names like Walmart and Burger King.15 The company had a pivotal role in accomplishing a…mission Impossible…believe it or not, the sales of plant-based meat dwarfed those of the animal-based one over the last couple of years. Impossible burgers have become a staple in my house … I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. But do we actually have to give up meat … I mean real meat?

But do we actually have to give up meat … I mean real meat? Cultivated meat, that is, meat grown in a lab, might become a cash cow and save our carnivore cravings with a smaller environmental impact. In fact, there could be a growing appetite for it in the future. The industry could be worth up to $25 billion by 2030.16 Also, compared to the first prototype developed a decade ago, companies have cut the lab-grown meat production costs by nearly 100%. Switching from raising methane-burping animals in never-ending fields to growing animal-free meat in a relatively small facility would be a huge improvement from an environmental standpoint. But would an engineered burger taste like a traditional one? And what about any health implications? And with an ever increasing population, will this new food stream manage to feed the world meat fanatics? Sounds like we’ve got a…meaty topic…to cover.

From lab rats to lab cows

The prime cuts of cultured meat were first served in a petri dish about 20 years ago.17 Lab-meat grew out of University research with the proof-of-taste happening in 2013, when Mark Post, a professor from Maastricht University, created the first cell-based burger. His innovative treat was cooked and tasted during a press conference, like an off-brand episode of Master Chef. Since then, startups followed up on the main course supported by hungry private investors. Upside Foods was one of the pioneers in the cultured meat banquet, with the world’s first lab-grown meatballs launched in 2016.18 Over the last few years more ventures have jumped on the fake meat-loaded bandwagon.

So, how do you grow meat in a lab? Basically, you need three key ingredients. Animal stem cells, a protein-based feed, a.k.a. growth medium, and a bioreactor … which is just a device where you grow the cells. The cells are generally taken out of the animal through a biopsy under anesthesia. Brewing inside the feed solution, they’ll develop into muscle and tissues and will reach an optimal density. At this stage, you get rid of most of the broth using a centrifuge. The harvested cells are then mixed with other additives to adjust the texture before being distributed for consumption.

Now, I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound mouth-watering at all. So, how does it taste? According to volunteers taking part in an Israeli research project, it’s pretty much the same as normal meat. The study authors19 designed a soy-based 3D scaffold to grow bovine cells on rather than in a reactor. They then fed volunteers with their innovative recipe. Apparently, after cooking it, the artificial beef smelled and tasted just like the animal-based one.

But is eating lab-made burgers safe? Growing meat in a controlled environment would allow tailoring its fat content. That means omega-3 fatty acids rather than saturated ones.20 We could make healthier and tastier meat. Some people have concerns that these Breaking Bad-like cooking experiments might introduce less desirable ingredients into our food. Yet, we do know that industrial meat producers already stuff their animals with antibiotics. In the US for instance, 80% of antibiotics are used to promote animal growth and prevent infections.21 Why is this bad for us? Because the more antibiotics are fed to animals, the more resistant the bacteria inside them will become. Not to mention that livestock can carry viruses. So, if we keep spreading livestock farms around the world, diseases are more likely to spread, leading to new pandemics. Something I think we can all agree on that we’d like to avoid.

On the other hand, companies like Multus Media22 are making cultivated meat without using any antibiotics in a sterile environment, free from animal waste contamination. And it’s not just healthier and safer. They also claim their creation to be cheaper and more sustainable than traditional farmed meat. The biotech startup focused on driving down the growth medium costs, which accounts for 80% of the cultured meat manufacturing budget. Multus Media came up with an innovative solution to make the cell’s nutrients more affordable. Leveraging machine learning, they’re developing an optimized animal-free protein-rich solution to feed the animal cells, which will then turn into the final meaty product.23 This novel data-driven approach makes these nutrients less expensive and more ethical than the industrial standard, which is blood serum taken from pregnant cows. Besides consuming less land and water, their process emits 87% less GHGs than conventional production. A life cycle assessment (LCA) performed on cultivated meat seems to back up these eco-perks. The study found that making 1,000 kg of slaughter-free meat saves up to 45% in energy, reduces GHG emissions by 96%, and requires 99% less land and 96% less water compared to farmed meat production.24 Another benefit of Multus Media’s technology is scalability. Using existing industrial plants from the brewing and biopharmaceutical industry, Multus Media is confident to meet commercial demand in the near future.

A many-horse meat race

So, who’s leading the animal-free meat race? Mosa Meat, Upside Foods and Aleph Farms seem to be the companies taking the biggest slices of the fake meat pie.25 Mosa Meat started off with a prime cut back in 2013, a burger for a mere €250,000. For that amount of money you can go to space on Virgin Galactic instead. But fast forward to today and now they can produce their pseudo-beef patty for a much leaner €9. The Dutch company is planning to launch a small-scale commercial reactor in the next few years.

With similar tech to Mosa Meat, Upside Foods is making chicken nuggets and beef meatballs. Funded by Bill Gates and the meat industry giant Tyson Foods, the Californian startup might beat everyone else.

Unlike the first two, Aleph Farms incorporates a plant-based 3D matrix, a.k.a. scaffold, within their bioreactors, where they grow animal cells. Sounds familiar? It is. The company co-authored the Israeli study I mentioned earlier.26 Their technology is based on tissue regeneration, which is what naturally happens in our body whenever our tissues repair themselves. The company’s technique is called cellular agriculture. In fact, it’s similar to the way hydroponic lettuce grows directly from its seeds. This innovative approach allows them to create more complex structures like a steak and transfer it from a petri dish to your plate in 4 weeks. Still, they won’t scale up their supply chain for another 4 years.

Besides bioreactors and scaffolding, you could also see your meat coming out of a printer. Bio-nuggets are a thing since KFC partnered with a Russian 3D bioprinting lab. The biomeat recipe? A mix of chicken cells and plant-based ingredients.27 Hold onto your lunch because this may not sit right with you. It’s an extrusion-based bioprint, very similar to the one used for making plastic. The machine will print alternating layers of chicken cells and veggies on a 3D support. We’re getting awfully close to Star Trek replicators.

But the animal-free menu is much wider than you think. Companies like Eat Just28 are aiming for the…beefy stars. They started with chicken nuggets, but the San Francisco-based firm has now captured the cells of the prestigious Toriyama cows to develop a slaughter-free version of the Japanese Wagyu beef. Partnering with the Awano Food Group, they’ll distribute and sell the fleshy fruits of their agricultural labor worldwide.

What if you’re bored by mundane chickens and cows? If you’re after something a little wilder, keep an eye on Vow.29 The Australian company is tapping into the 99.8% of animals which are not used for food production. Exploring these new, wide avenues, their labs are trying to replicate meat from unconventional animals like kangaroos, alpacas, zebras, and yaks. All this, still without spilling any of their blood. After taking a pinch of their cells, they’ll create a wild treat in about 6 weeks.30

I’m a life-long meat eater to my vegetarian-wife’s dismay. If you’re like me, your mouth is already watering wanting to try this…but when will the animal-free meat wave surf the mainstream counter? The global consultancy AT Kearney is predicting most of the meat we eat will no longer involve killing animals by 2040.31 That seems pretty optimistic to me, but time will tell. The authors also said cultured meat will be more popular than its fully vegan competitor as it better reproduces the taste and the texture of farmed meat. Imagine that perfect Waygu steak replicated identically over and over. You’d never have to worry about a bad cut of steak again.

Greener, safer, and animal-friendly. Sounds perfect, right? But is there anything lurking behind the lab-grown meat counter? As I already mentioned, this technology is still not ready to deliver clean meat on a commercial scale. Also, and this is probably the most important thing, as of today cultured meat has been approved for sale by a regulatory authority in one location: Singapore.32 Since last year, a Singaporean restaurant has been serving Eat Just’s cruelty-free chicken bites. Also While the product is currently much more expensive than what you grab in KFC, it should become cheaper once the company has scaled up its lab production. It’s the same challenge for all new technologies … going from lab to commercial scale. So when will clean meat become affordable? At the moment, the Israeli start-up Future Meat put the lowest price tag on a piece of lab-grown meat. The company sliced in half their chicken breast production cost in a few months, going down to $4 for just over 100 g.33 Gathering information on technology advancements from startups in the field, CE Delft recently estimated that lab meat will become competitive on the market by 2030.34 Other than technology limitations and costs, swaying consumers’ choice could be another big challenge. A recent survey including 1,800 people in the US, showed 72% of them still prefer farmed meat to cultured and plant-based alternatives.35

Cultivating a greener animal farm

While animal-based meat has been a traditional staple for decades, it’s an inefficient luxury. Cultured meat could be a feast for our society, preventing both world hunger and climate change. Win, win … with a whole bunch of caveats. Although it’s still at an early stage, lab-made meat technology has grown rapidly over the last 20 years and it might be on our diner plates sooner than we think.

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