Maastricht, 5th of August, 2013. “What we’re going to see is a world first”. These are the words of Professor Mark Post, unveiling the world’s first cultured beef burger, painstakingly manufactured in a Dutch laboratory over three years. The concept of synthetic meat previously only existed in the realm of science fiction, however, due to the rise of meat alternatives over the last decade, commercialisation now looks imminent. Lab-grown beef patties and chicken nuggets could become ubiquitous in major supermarkets within the next 10–15 years, but will they revolutionise our eating habits?
Proponents of the emerging technology consider this an advancement on the plant-based products flooding the market, with taste and texture more closely mirroring conventional products, while bypassing the ethical and environmental concerns caused by rearing livestock. However, consumer acceptance on a mass scale is unproven. Mark Post’s original burger reportedly cost $250,00-$330,000 to manufacture, and while current estimates place the cost of a cultured burger at $10, affordability in the current economic climate will be an issue. And as with all new technologies, the unfamiliar is often met with scepticism.
The Science of Cultured Meat
The term "lab-grown meat" is perhaps misleading, as although laboratories are currently used, they will be substituted by microbreweries once production scales are increased. To begin the process, STEM cells are isolated from the animal without inflicting any physical pain, which will attract consumers who haven't entirely abandoned meat, but have difficulties with the suffering the meat industry causes. Cells are then placed in a bioreactor and fired with all nutrients (amino acids, glucose, vitamins, and inorganic salts) necessary for cultivation. Finally, scientists shape the tissue into edible scaffolds (this area still requires some work, as structures for certain meats are more difficult to replicate than others), and after 2-8 weeks, meat tissue can be harvested and prepared for consumption.
Although it's currently theoretical, a stabilized production technique would aim for greater efficiency than traditional meat, with potentially X3 as much product being produced pound for pound from the same animal This greater efficiency would lead to greenhouse emissions, land use and water use all being drastically reduced. And a minor plus - scientists will be able to create healthier meat by reducing the amount of saturated fatty acids, which could prove pivotal in its popularity.
Who is Producing Cultured Meat?
Google Co-Founder Sergey Brin was one of the initial investors in this innovation, and the trend of tech figures funnelling money into ambitious start-up companies has continued over the last decade. New products are now being developed by an estimated 99 companies worldwide, and investment reached $360 million in 2020 alone. The U.K. government has also recently stepped up interest, with Innovate U.K. recently announcing grants of £16 million for companies looking to develop low-emission food production systems.
Increased investment is a promising sign, but still, questions remain - will shoppers buy these state-of-the-art products if traditional meat sits next door at a cheaper price? Will vegetarians and vegans even care when affordable plant-based products are so readily available? While studies show consumers have a healthy curiosity in trying samples, cultured products may struggle to be consistently added to weekly shopping lists. Market leaders such as Mosa Meat (who recently secured investment from Leonardo DiCaprio) openly admit their products will enter the market at a premium price point (two or three times the price of normal meat), with the hope future production techniques will eventually bring costs level or even below standard meat. However, with the technology being so new, this is currently purely conjectural. If cultivated meat is successful from the outset, the process of achieving low-cost products will obviously be accelerated, but there is no clear timeframe for this advancement. While commercialisation is on the horizon, affordability may be further in the distance.
Will Cultured Meat be accepted?
Impressive science aside, cultured meat won't matter if nobody eats it. The recent unveiling of Mark Zuckerburg’s Meta-Verse appeared more as a dystopian nightmare than a promising future for the workplace, and while the reaction to cultured Meat hasn’t been as passionate, concerns about its safety remain. Confusion regarding the science of the creation process could be an issue, with only about one-third of surveyed consumers (36.5%) allegedly knowing the correct definition of cultured meat. Successful product launches and initial marketing to dispel misinformation may be key, and this will of course be helped by regulatory bodies successfully approving new companies (the FDA in the U.S. cleared the first start-up company as safe for human consumption in November 2021).
However, the emotional reaction to the "unnaturalness" of cells grown in a laboratory could be the greatest barrier to consumer acceptance. Companies such as GOOD Meat are cleverly trying to reverse this notion by marketing products as actually more natural than chemical-filled meat products currently fuelling environmental devastation. This kind of marketing will likely appeal to the same demographic who are already consuming alternative proteins, and it may take more time to attract consumers who are more detached from environmental causes, especially in areas where meat and farming are intertwined with local traditions. Rural areas throughout the world have shown to be more neophobic and less receptive to the idea of cultured meat, and it will be intriguing to see if meat-centric cuisines (think Cantonese food or Brazilian BBQ) will be prepared to move away from what has been part of their way of life for centuries.
The introduction of cultured meat speaks to the difficulties of modern environmentalism. While we perceive our eating habits to be greener than ever, the global demand for meat (predominately driven by increased prosperity in China and East Asia) is expected to rise in the next 30 years, and even in Europe only 7% of the population reportedly follow a plant-based diet (vegan and vegetarian), Cultured meat companies understand meat is embedded in our food culture, and with time, cultured meat could be too. Jokily referred to as “Frankenmeat”, cultured meat is no monstrosity or symbol of ambition gone awry, and will find some acceptance in the marketplace of tomorrow. Even a decade ago, the idea of eating an assembly of pea-protein goo for dinner would have caused many to shrivel with disinterest and disgust, however, they're now a fixture in every shop and restaurant. Cultivated meat has the potential to emulate this, however, like other eco-friendly inventions, acceptance will require changes in our ingrained habits. And with the climate emergency already at a critical level, we can only hope it will become part of the solution.
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