Despite concerns around health, climate change, and animal welfare – global meat consumption continues to rise. However, the limits of intensive animal farming already seem to have been reached. Researchers around the world are hard at work on an alternative: meat that is cultivated in a laboratory. But does it really live up to its promise of a sustainable, cruelty-free alternative? And will the technology be capable of making it affordable and accessible in time?
It was just six years ago that an artificial meat burger cost a whopping 250,000 euros. Since then, companies, start-ups, and universities have launched numerous significant and expensive trials in the race to produce meat products from animal cells. Soon, finding this so-called in vitro meat in the supermarket will no longer be science fiction.
The process of growing meat in a laboratory involves muscle stem cells from animals which develop into muscle cells. They multiply rapidly in a bioreactor and grow into muscle fibres in a nutrient solution. Sugar, amino acids, oxygen, and plant additives are needed to grow muscle fibres, fat, and animal tissue in the cell culture medium. The result of the cultivation process is a thin layer of muscle fibres that are then processed into meat products such as sausages or minced meat.
Animal rights organisations view these developments as promising – potentially signalling an end to cruelty towards, and mass killings of, animals. As demand for meat continues to grow, a solution that provides an end to intensive livestock farming seems like a win-win. But not all environmentalists are as enthusiastic: within the ecological movement some are concerned about the implications for our view of the value of animal life, as well as for protecting the planet. Many questions remain: how sustainable will cultivated meat be? And is its production truly a pain-free process for animals? What will it mean for the farming industry? And will people be willing to eat it?
A growing appetite for meat
Global demand for meat is growing. Over the past 50 years, meat production has more than tripled, and this is set to increase sharply in the years ahead. Intensive farming accounts for a large part of production, with pork and poultry the most widely consumed meats globally. Together these species account for about two thirds of the 360 million tonnes produced in 2018, followed by beef at about 70 million tonnes.
In recent years, in line with nutritional guidance to cut down on meat consumption, alternatives such as plant-based meat substitutes have been generating increasing interest among the populations of countries with high levels of meat consumption. Tofu, wheat gluten, tempeh, soya meat – these plant-based products have been on the market for years now. Almost like meat but remaining fundamentally an imitation. “Cultured meat, unlike plant-based substitutes, is actually meat genetically,” says Kurt Schmidinger, an Austrian food scientist who works with experts from business, science, and animal welfare as part of the Future Food initiative, which aims for meat production without livestock farming.
Scientists agree that our current meat-eating habits cannot be reconciled with either ecological or industrial livestock farming in the coming decades.
Politicians have begun to take notice of the potential of cultivated meat and encourage development of the sector. The Spanish government recently provided 5.2 million euros to the start-up BioTech Foods in San Sebastian, a company which has also received funding from Brussels. In October, the EU granted almost 3 million euros to the consortium project Meat4All, which BioTech Foods is leading.
Many meat-processing companies have also responded largely positively to the development of in vitro meat, which may seem surprising at first. The German market leader Wiesenhof has already invested in the start-up Supermeat, for example, and other companies who view these developments as significant for the future of their industry are also getting behind these initiatives early.
But who finances the development of in vitro meat, which is still very costly today? Some Silicon Valley billionaires, including Bill Gates, are supporting young start-ups, motivated by animal rights concerns. Via foundations such as the Open Philanthropy Project, they invest millions in the research. Already in 2015, the foundation complained that in vitro meat “receives little attention from governments and philanthropy.” According to investigative research by France Info, the foundation has invested over 100 million euros in animal welfare organisations.
From a marketing strategy point of view, this is a clever chess move: the channelling of lobbying interests of the companies developing cultured meat through animal welfare organisations, which in public perception stand for their clean, green image, is likely to help generate a favourable attitude towards cultured meat among the public.
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A global race
Many start-ups worldwide are currently working on the production of complicated three-dimensional meat structures. Worldwide, about 60 companies are researching this area. The USA, Israel, Japan, Canada, and some European countries are home to most of them. Singapore was the first country to approve cultured meat.
The structure of a steak or fillet is complex and requires plant-based materials. Another option is chemical production. Research is currently ready to ”make sausages, hamburgers, and chicken nuggets,” says Nick Lin-Hi, professor of economics and ethics at the University of Vechta, who has been working on sustainable consumption for a decade and a half. “This product tastes exactly like the meat from the animal, it looks the same, it smells the same. This step is a milestone. It is the biggest promise of sustainable development we have.”
Camilla Björkbom of the animal advocacy organisation EuroGroup for Animals expects mass production to start within this decade: “The companies aim for 2030. By then it will be commercially available. For now, it is rather testing and trying.”
Derin Alemli, the operations manager of US-based company New Age Meats sees a competitive advantage in the US: “Europe is much less on board with any genetic modifications, whereas we think it would be very difficult to scale this technology without that.”
Scepticism in the EU
In Europe, the Netherlands has been the pioneer since the beginning of research into artificial meat, almost 30 years ago. The first success was announced by the Mosa Meat research team in 2013, who presented the first artificially grown meat burger. The big sticking point at that time was the production cost. As soon as a company could start a low-cost, market-ready production, it would apply for approval in the EU. The European Food Safety Authority EFSA could then grant approval within one to two years: “The application could be under the Novel Food Regulation. Production can start if all safety regulations are met,” says food scientist Kurt Schmidinger.
So far, EU support – whether financial or through pan-European research projects – has been limited. “So far the European Union is quite hesitant,” explains Camilla Björkbom, “This is also a source of frustration for companies starting to develop cultivated meat. There could be more discussion in the EU about the potential of it.” Besides the Netherlands, the French company Gourmet is currently developing foie gras based on cell propagation.
A sustainable alternative?
Global factory farming is a real problem for the climate and the environment on our planet. Almost one sixth of greenhouse gases can be traced back to livestock farming. Huge areas of rainforest have given way to monocultures, especially maize and soy plantations to feed cattle, pigs, and other farm animals. A United Nations study attributes 8 percent of global water consumption to meat production. And factory farming can promote the development of epidemics; zoonosis becomes more likely when many animals are kept in a small space, as viruses spread and come into contact with humans.
In vitro meat promises to solve these problems: less agricultural land for livestock and the cultivation of feed products. In a bid to convince EU politicians, the Eurogroup for Animals has commissioned a paper (written by animal welfare consultant Hermes Sanctorum) summarising the state of research and perspectives on in vitro meat.
A study by the University of Oxford, now 10 years old, predicts that water consumption for cultivated meat could be reduced by 96 per cent. And already nine years ago, a study commissioned by the EU discovered the far-reaching contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gases and intensive water and land use through the use of cultured meat. The results showed that if all meat produced in the EU-27 was replaced by cultured meat, the emissions, land use and water use would be reduced by two orders of magnitude compared to current meat production practices.
For food researcher Kurt Schmidinger, the current food cycle has no future: “We feed our own food to animals that need it for their own metabolism. This is very wasteful for our metabolism, because we do this with over 70 billion animals a year. Currently we are clearing rainforests for the feed of the farm animals that we eat.”
“Under the pretext of not wanting to kill a cow, they prefer to let the cow disappear altogether.”
– J. Porcher
As far as greenhouse gases are concerned, cultured meat scores highly in terms of lower methane emissions. However, a study by the University of Oxford warns of the potential impact of CO2 emissions: “Under continuous high global consumption, cultured meat results in less warming than cattle initially, but this gap narrows in the long term and in some cases cattle production causes far less warming, as CH4 [methane] emissions do not accumulate, unlike CO2.” The study showed that although cattle systems generally resulted in greater peak warming than cultured meat, this warming effect tended to decline and stabilise over time, while the CO2-based warming from cultured meat persisted and accumulated even under reduced consumption. It therefore concluded that: “cultured meat is not prima facie climatically superior to cattle.”
There are signs of a split between supporters and sceptics in green circles on the issue of cultured meat. While animal welfare organisations are very much open to the new technology, advocates of ecological animal farming are more sceptical. German Green MEP Martin Häusling points out that comprehensive data is still lacking, and thus it is not yet possible to predict what the climate footprint will ultimately look like in the mass production of cultured meat. “Even for the production of laboratory meat, certain amounts of energy are needed. The meat is not simply grown in the sun. The climate footprint of the bioreactors will not be very good either. It will be very energy intensive. But to know it exactly, you would need data. But that doesn’t exist,” says Häusling.
But the Green parties in Europe are anything but united in their attitude toward the climate potential of cultivated meat. The split is along the lines of the classic internal conflicts between fundamentalist Greens and eco-modernist practitioners. While green parties have long strictly rejected genetically engineered products in the food industry, that position is increasingly a matter for debate. The question of coalition possibilities with conservative parties plays a role in determining this outlook. In Austria, such a conservative-green coalition has been a reality since last year, in Germany it could dominate Berlin from September onwards.
However, the criticism of traditionalists is more noticeable because pragmatic voices that see opportunities for achieving climate goals in cultured meat are seldom heard. This is due to the almost total absence of public debate on this issue, and the question of connected opportunities and risks, both at the national and European level, among politicians as well as towards the public.
New ethical dilemmas
Today’s predominantly large-scale livestock farming has come with capitalism and industrialisation. French sociologist Jocelyne Porcher has been studying the relationship between humans and animals for many years. She says that industrial livestock farming labels animals as products and treats them like machines. The industrial animal life of pigs and chickens no longer has anything in common with natural animal life. “We treat our animals in an incredibly violent way. The conditions in which they are kept are terrible.”
In vitro meat promises to make slaughterhouses a thing of the past. No animal must die to obtain the stem cells, which are taken from a living animal during a biopsy. But is in vitro meat entirely free of animal deaths? For years, critics could rightly point out that cell multiplication in a nutrient solution requires the killing of an animal. Björkbom explains: “When you let grow the cells, traditionally you need a fetal bovine serum that comes from calves. The challenge for companies is to replace an unethical product as it is produced today by another product that is cultivated but does not use fetal serum.”
Business ethicist Nick Lin-Hi is certain that cultured meat will not be accepted on the market until a cost-effective substitute serum is found. However, “an economic interest is already steering the search for a substitute,” he says. The cultured poultry meat approved in Singapore seems to be gaining a competitive advantage in this respect, according to Björkbom. “Now they have managed to move away from fetal serum. They have developed animal-free substitutes.” This animal-free nutrient solution could consist of proteins and hormones from plants, algae, or fungi.
Sociologist Porcher expects cultured meat to be just the beginning: “Cellular agriculture also deals with eggs, milk, and other animal products. They are all to be developed in the laboratory. The big investors who have the money and industrial agriculture are working hand in hand on this. Animals are seen as resources. So far we have used all the animal material. Now we are taking animal cells and replacing the cow with a bioreactor. What does a cow actually mean to these people? How can animal welfare organisations support this? This shows that they don’t know what a cow is and what kind of relationship we have with this animal as humans. Under the pretext of not wanting to kill a cow, they prefer to let the cow disappear altogether.”
And Green politician Häusling points out that there are alternatives that also have animal welfare in mind: “If someone doesn’t want to eat meat for moral reasons, he or she can either become a vegetarian or look for farms that produce meat according to animal welfare standards. Forty percent of the world’s land is entirely grassland. We could make better use of this land for sustainable farming of ruminants.”
“With cultured meat, we can also try out fun mixtures: Penguin-kangaroo burgers without hurting penguins and kangaroos.” – K. Schmidinger
And what role will organic farming play? Kurt Schmidinger is convinced that organic farmers will have new tasks. He sees farmers as producers of the plant-based raw materials that are necessary for the nutrient solutions. “So cultivated meat does not do away with agriculture per se. Especially since we continue to eat plant products.”
Porcher does not agree. She fears that small organic farms have no prospects: “I talk to many farmers who have small farms. They already have existential problems due to competition from factory farming. The argument that ensures survival for small farmers today is: we treat our animals well, we love our animals. Cultured meat makes it even harder for them. Organic farmers offer the animals a dignified life and the quality of the meat speaks for them. But what else can they say when the producers of cultured meat offer their product in the supermarket as slaughter-free? The aim of this industry is to destroy livestock farming. Except for the cow that donates the cells for 80,000 burgers, farm animals will disappear.”
A healthier kind of meat?
The impact of cultured meat on human health remains the subject of speculation. One advantage is that, while animals are often treated with antibiotics in mass farming, this would not be the case for cultured meat. The cell reproduction takes place under sterile conditions. The bioreactor is self-contained, which also prevents fungi and bacteria from entering.
In addition, in vitro meat can be produced individually according to the nutritional needs and tastes of the consumer. Food scientist Schmidinger explains: “So far, there are only a few animal species that we eat. With cultured meat, we can also try out fun mixtures: Penguin-kangaroo burgers without hurting penguins and kangaroos. It will be easy to lower cholesterol, lower saturated fat and push omega-three fatty acids. In livestock farming, it is only possible to influence this very slowly through certain breeds.”
MEP Martin Häusling is sceptical about whether this automatically means that in vitro meat is healthy: “To give the muscle cells a structure, many substances are added. Many of them do not come from nature but are produced artificially. I’m thinking of flavour enhancers to make it taste like meat. How can that be healthy?”
A mixed response among the population
It is still difficult to foresee to what extent cultured meat will find its buyers. Hermes Sanctorum and Dr. Christopher Bryant carried out a study to find out more about potential acceptance among the population. ”As cultivated meat is not on the market yet, you can only measure consumer intentions. In Belgium for example, young people are more positive towards it than older people. Flexitarians are also positive. Women were more inclined towards eating and buying plant-based meat alternatives whereas men were more interested in cultivated meat. But it is clear there will be people that are reluctant because it is new,” says Camilla Björkbom.
It is difficult to estimate how large this sceptical group will be. For Björkbom, it is clear that vegetarians cannot be convinced by the alternative meat either. On the other hand, she says, “cultivated meat can appeal to the meat consuming part of the population. If you want the taste and texture but you do not want the slaughter, you might be interested in cultivated meat.”
Scientists agree that our current meat-eating habits cannot be reconciled with either ecological or industrial livestock farming in the coming decades. The world’s population will increase to about 10 billion people by the middle of the century. The appetite for meat is growing, especially in many emerging countries whose economic growth and standard of living are rising. Nick Lin-Hi calculates: “A globally rising level of prosperity goes hand in hand with rising meat consumption. So we are talking about at least a 50 per cent increase in meat consumption by 2050, but the studies predict even more. Our food system is currently at an impasse.”
Cultivated meat – within our reach?
In vitro meat would convince many people if it were to be affordable, Nick Lin-Hi believes. This may not be such a distant prospect. ”We will reach price parity at some point. I assume that we will be able to undercut the current price of meat by the end of the decade. Cultivated meat will be cheaper than discounter meat,” says Lin-Hi. In his current study, he already notes a high openness to cultivated meat: “But we have to do something to increase acceptance. We need to educate all levels of society.”
In France, the minister of agriculture took a clear position following the approval in Singapore. On Twitter, Julien Denormandie rejected cultured meat: “I say clearly. Do we really want this for our children? No! You can count on me: In France, meat will never be artificial”. In the end, the question of the future of meat production will also be determined by the amount of meat the average adult consumes. The German Nutrition Society recommends 300 grammes per week. That equates to a substantial piece of steak – the likes of which a laboratory has yet to create.