Brave new burger – the race to put lab grown meat on the table

Sydney Morning Herald, December 18 2017 Paula Goodyer

The idea of eating beef grown in a lab once seemed as fanciful as eating unicorn fillets.

But not any longer. The US meat producer, Cargill, is now investing in a company working to put beef, chicken and duck cultured from cells on to American plates. Called Memphis Meats, it’s one of several companies in the US and Israel now developing ways to produce slaughter-free meat on an industrial scale.

And if you’d prefer that no animal died to create a decent handbag, a US company called Modern Meadow  is developing cultured leather made from cattle collagen.

In 20 years’ time supermarkets will sell both farmed meat and cultured meat, predicts Professor Mark Post, the Dutch scientist from Maastricht University who produced the first hamburger patty cultured from cells in 2013. The farmed meat will carry an eco-tax because of its impact on the environment – yet will otherwise be the same as the alternative meat made in the lab, he says.

Post’s prediction comes from Clean Meat, a new book to be published by Simon and Schuster in January that looks at the race to make cultured meat a reality and how our world might change if it does: fewer factory farms, fewer animals slaughtered and meat grown with technology that uses less land, less water and produces fewer of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

Or as Memphis Meats put it in the press release announcing the 2016 taste testing of its first cultured meatball:

“We plan to do to animal agriculture what the car did to the horse and buggy. ”

But we’re not there yet, says Clean Meat’s author, Paul Shapiro, Vice-president for Policy with the Humane Society of the United States.

“Several things need to happen before commercialisation becomes a real possibility.”

Making cultured meat affordable is one – Memphis Meat’s meatball cost $1200. Another is that the current technology can only culture small pieces of meat or chicken that can be made into burgers, sausages or nuggets – it hasn’t yet found a way to culture a large piece of meat like a steak. But the costs are coming down, says Shapiro. That meatball was cheap compared to Mark Post’s hamburger created two years earlier at a cost of $330,000 and according to Post, the costs of making a cultured burger have already dropped by almost 80 per cent and an $11 cultured burger by 2020 is a real possibility.

Another hurdle is winning over wary consumers who see cultured meat as creepy Franken food. Yet while growing beef, pork or poultry without killing animals might seem unnatural, the same can apply to factory farming.

If you’ve ever spent time in a chicken processing plant, for instance (and I have) the usual way of producing chicken meat is a long way from either Ol’ MacDonald or a Paleo fantasy hunting party. Having spent their unnatural lives confined in a dim shed, there’s something equally unnatural about how chickens are prepared for slaughter: suspended upside down from a moving conveyer belt alongside other panicky birds so their heads can be swept through an electrified bath to stun them before killing.

As for how willing we are to try cultured meat, earlier studies from 2014 suggest at least 20 per cent of consumers would give it a go, but an Australian study of US consumers this year found that two thirds would be willing to try cultured meat, although only one third said they’d eat it regularly.

“When we looked at who’d be likely to eat cultured meat it was men who said they  were more likely to try it than women – possibly because men are more adventurous with what they eat,” says Clive Phillips, Professor of Animal Welfare at the University of Queensland and one of the study’s authors.  “I think it shows that people are becoming more concerned about animal welfare – but they still want to eat meat.”

How long before cultured meat is a realistic option? Some futurists predict five years, says Phillips – although one US company, Hampton Creek, has said it will sell at least some of its product before the end of 2018, adds Shapiro.

If it does take off, it will mean we get the benefits of eating less meat – like better animal welfare and less land degradation but without cutting meat out of our diet, adds Brian Kateman from the Earth Institute for Environmental Sustainability at Columbia University in the US and founder of the Reducetarian Foundation that encourages people to eat less meat – but not necessarily no meat.

“Given that most people choose food primarily based on price, convenience and taste (and less on ethics, the planet, and even their own health), clean meat allows them to have their meat… and eat it too,” he says.

The planet may also breathe a sigh of relief.

“A 2011 study by Oxford University published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, estimated that cultured beef could require up to 45 percent less energy, 99 percent less land, and 96 percent less water than conventional beef,” says Shapiro. “Admittedly, any life cycle analysis performed so early has limitations, since it’s unclear what technologies will actually make cellular-ag products commercially viable. But it’s likely that growing animal products rather than raising animals would be more resource-efficient.”