Meet meat

Modern problems, require modern solutions” -David Chappell

 

In 2013, a researcher from Maastricht University, Mark Post, introduced the world’s first patty. It tasted quite neutral, but the texture resembled a ‘real’ burger. What was so special about this particular patty that appeared at 1 p.m. on people’s “tellies” in the UK? It was not real meat…or technically it was, but no cow had died for it, nor was it a vegan alternative that you can find on supermarket shelves. It was meat grown in a lab, or how people call it in the industry: cultivated meat. 

This particular technology is quite simple. Scientists take a few cells from an animal and put it in a solution which then provides cells with nutritions so they can multiply, grow and form muscle tissue, creating a piece of – fake – meat. That, but way more complicated. This still developing technology, which can produce small patties, can have big implications for our world by countering a day-by-day grimmer future. First of all, we could drastically increase the wellbeing of animals used for daily consumption. In the ideal scenario humanity would not have to kill an animal ever again.This is, however, a bit of an idealistic and utopian vision and it will probably take a considerable amount of time to reach this point. 

The second major implication is countering global warming, which does not seem to be slowing down and poses major threats to the world we live in. This is because you suddenly don’t have to build huge farms to meet meat demand or maintain a lot of livestock. 

As we all know, consumption of meat –  at least as we know it – is not sustainable, especially with an increasing amount of people living on our planet. Even though there are movements that are trying to minimise the impact of meat consumption, such as veganism, it is difficult to convince the whole world to alter their habits and change their national cuisines. This is where cultivated meat could play an important role, as it has the potential to create (more) sustainable meat that could feed many.

De Moeial conducted an interview with Roman Laus, founder and CEO of Mewery in Czechia, a start-up developing cultivated pork. Even though they do not rank into the biggest companies which are working with this technology, they are at the spearhead of this growing industry and would like to be on the US market within three years. Laus first came into contact with this technology at Future Port Prague, an event which presents technologies of the future. Intrigued by what he learned, Laus got to work and after years of mapping the industry, he assembled a team of scientists that started their research in 2021. Currently Mewery has its own cell bank which helps the research to be more efficient and cheaper as they do not need to acquire animal cells from other partners. They claim that producing 1 kg of their meat “costs” 0,98 kg of CO2 which is drastically low compared to farmed animal meat. This shows that cultivated meat could be a way for us to curb emissions and make the whole industry more sustainable, especially taking into account that for the same kilogram of farmed meat you need 400 litres of water. Certainly these numbers will decrease even further as the technology continues to develop, however it already signals the benefits it can have.

 

Obstacles

Despite growing research and worldwide interest, this technology undeniably still faces many obstacles which makes it difficult to adopt. Mr. Laus told De Moeial that the biggest obstacles he currently sees for cultivated meat are price competitiveness and scalability of the industry.

 

Although companies and scientists were able to bring down the cost of a kilogram of meat to tens of dollars quite fast, it is still unable to compete with prices of meat that you can find in your local store. As Laus puts it: “…although we managed to bring the cost of the cultivated meat significantly down (faster than genome sequencing) as an industry, it is still not enough to compete with subsidised conventional meat or their very aggressive pricing strategies. I think it is even quite unfair to expect price parity without any subsidies or help and support from our governments which I believe will change in the near future.”

 

This is connected to the fact that so far most of the research and production was made by startups or on an academic soil, institutions that don’t have the capacities to mass produce the meat. This scalability is what Laus sees as another obstacle in the mass production and wider adoption of cultivated meat. He describes the challenge as: “…using this new technology on a large scale, because for you to be able to feed cities you have to start building big factories”. Development of factories big enough to meet demand won’t happen overnight. He estimates that it will take at least ten years for the industries to develop the capacity for cultivated meat to be widely available, however projects are on their way to build up this infrastructure. One example of this is, as Freethink reported, Israeli company Future Meat which built in 2021 the first factory that can produce more than 500 kg of chicken, pork and lamb per day. This is an important milestone in the production as the company was able to bring down cost of 100g of chicken to 3,90$, which is fair, but still cannot quite compete with Coloryut’s 1,3Є (1,4$) for the same product.

 

Hermetic seal?

While we talk about revolutionary technology such as cultivated meat, we also have to think about how it will shape our society and how society will shape it in return. Farmers, who will most likely be affected by this change in meat production, are one example of this. Considering the rising tension between governments and farmers all around Europe, switching from living animals to lab-grown meat would probably exacerbate their already precarious relations. There are two scenarios which could play out in the upcoming decade.

The first is a burning Brussels, or a strong backlash against the new way of producing meat. Some countries such as France, Australia and Italy, are already taking steps to try and stop the production of cultivated meat. They have recently submitted a note to the Council of Europe supported by nine other EU countries, stating that cultivated meat is not an alternative to farm production and raising ethical, economic, social and health questions. 

The second scenario is adaptation. In this case, farmers could transform their business and farms to produce cultivated meat of all sorts and thus continue to produce food. This change would not be easy, and would also require that we change our conception of what farming entails. 

Laus is positive about the development of cultivated meat-farmers relations and believes that worries caused by this technology are those that come out of a human fear of change. Mewery itself does not have capacity or resources to talk to farmers on a larger scale, but Laus did say that he knows few farmers who have already embraced the change. In general, he believes that this technology is too important to help solve our current issues, so people cannot simply ignore it. He understands that the topic raises a lot of emotions but soothes: “Same as AI does not want to destroy the world, cultivated meat doesn’t want to destroy farmers”. Though he recognizes that to some farmers the meat might seem unnatural and that they will try to protect their tradition, he looks at the issue from another perspective: “If you would like something that is not natural, look at industrial farms. That is exactly what is not natural. It is natural to have your own small farm, somewhere behind your house in a village, but it is certainly not natural to let animals grow many times faster than is natural. I don’t think I have to talk about this topic further as everyone knows what is happening at the “megafarms” ”.

 

To the future and beyond…

Some of you who read all the way here might wonder when this meat will be available for your grill party? The answer is inconclusive, especially when it comes to the EU, as no company has yet asked to enter the European market with cultivated meat. There are some countries that are further in the legislation and embrace this change, such as Singapour and the USA, but there is no widespread production yet. At the moment, an information gap has to be closed first. Many consumers and companies are not yet aware of the existence of cultivated meat, which slows down further developments.  What the future holds for this technology, remains to be seen. Cultivated meat will most likely not enter the European market for at least another three years. The research and production are still developing, and even though there are few first doves, cultivated meat has a long journey to go, to get to our store shelves and culture. So the question is, would you like a burger?

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