Veganuary is over for another year. Thank goodness, say livestock farmers, who for 31 days at the turn of each year are called out as carbon criminals.
But there is nuance in this debate and those ploughing the middle road have suggested we eat ‘less but better meat’. It’s a snappy message but brings plenty more questions, not least what do you mean by ‘better’?
But what if there were a silver bullet here – one that offers meat without the ethical and environmental baggage?
That is the promise of cultured meat. Produced in a laboratory using animal cells, it is just one of the meat ‘alternatives’ vying for our attention. This isn’t ‘meat’ made from plants, or the relatively new idea of making animal protein from fermentation; this is meat as we know it but supposedly ‘guilt-free’. The concept is tantalising.
“For the first time, meat from real animals that hasn’t required a single animal to be killed or a single tree to be cut down can be sold,” said Josh Tetrick, chief executive at Eat Just, the US start-up that created nuggets from cultivated chicken and became the first lab-grown meat approved for human consumption.
Diners in Singapore have been enjoying them for the past two years. They aren’t cheap but they’re a lot cheaper than that first, and still most famous, burger grown from animal cells that was unveiled in 2013 (£200,000).
Indeed, cultured meat has been a long time coming but things are really starting to happen. The US government has just cleared the way for Americans to be able to eat lab-grown meat in what some have called “the day the food system really started changing”. The Netherlands, meanwhile, has joined France and Germany in allowing cultured meat to be used in ‘tastings’.
Here in the UK, the government seems supportive of a technology that boasts of far lower environmental impacts than traditional meat.
Cultured meat cannot yet be sold in the UK though, primarily because no company has attempted to file an application, which is likely to be time-consuming, expensive and open to legal scrutiny.
We apparently have the richest landscape of cellular agriculture companies in Europe, according to NGO ProVeg, with 12 companies that are working on cultured meat, cultured fat, cell-line developments, or bioreactor systems.
One of those is Roslin Technologies based near Edinburgh, Scotland. Here, scientists are working with ‘pluripotent stem cells’ that can be turned into any animal cell type, including muscle and fat cells, and which can self-replicate indefinitely without deterioration.
These traits make them ideal for large-scale and more efficient production of cultivated meat – the few millilitres (and couple of billion cells) in each vial delivered to companies in Europe, the US, Asia and Middle East, can potentially produce massive amounts of meat in the future. Potentially.
Cultured meat does have potential but it’s still early stages, says Illtud Dunsford, co-founder at Cellular Agriculture, which is developing bioreactors in which the meat ‘grows’. It’ll be 10 to 15 years before maturity and some form of price parity with traditional meat, he reckons.
Far from just being worried about the competition, they’re talking about how cultured meat could concentrate corporate power and distance people even further from where their food comes from. Tom MacMillan, Royal Agricultural College
But what impact will such scale have? Speak to those invested in this tech and all the talk is of huge savings on emissions and land use. Firm facts can be hard to find, though, as a recent Oxford study found that “replacing cattle with cultured meat may not be a simple replacement of high-impact with low-impact”. Much rests on whether all those bioreactors are powered with green energy.
The public also has to be convinced this is a good (and safe) idea. Only 30 per cent of UK consumers feel cultured meat is safe to eat, according to research by the Food Standards Agency (FSA). For insects it’s 50 per cent, while for plant-based proteins it’s 77 per cent. Still, more were more willing to try cultivated meat than crickets and other edible insects (34 per cent versus 26 per cent).
How do farmers feel about cultured meat? Professor Tom MacMillan from the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester is part of a project to see how they will be affected if cultured meat takes off.
“Far from just being worried about the competition, they’re talking about how cultured meat could concentrate corporate power and distance people even further from where their food comes from,” he explains.
The options available are not simply ‘intensively produced animal products’ versus ‘lab-manufactured proteins. Patrick Holden, dairy farmer and chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust
MacMillan and his team are also looking at the agricultural products that could go into making cultured meat. While it is early days for that research, they’re investigating whether there are crops, or even by-products, from livestock farming that could supply the cultured meat industry.
“For almost as long as scientists have been working on cultured meat some, especially in the Netherlands, have imagined a future where it is produced at a craft scale on farm. We’ll be looking into this possibility too, though at this stage it’s hard to see how the cards aren’t stacked against it,” he adds.
Patrick Holden, dairy farmer and chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, says he understands that when presented with a choice between meat produced from intensive livestock systems or synthesised proteins people might well choose the latter. “The problem with this picture is that it is based upon a false dichotomy,” he explains.
“The options available are not simply ‘intensively produced animal products’ versus ‘lab-manufactured proteins’. There is another – and in my opinion, vastly preferable – option [which is] meat produced from high-welfare, regenerative systems, that allow nature to thrive.”
Cultured meat is a few years off for the UK but it will be coming to a restaurant or supermarket near you.
Competing interests will all sell their own (sustainable) story and as ever it’ll up to us, the public, to decide with our wallets. Perhaps more of us will simply opt for plants.
Meat and ‘meat’: The glossary
Lab-grown meat. Meat that is ‘grown’ from animal cells in a lab, without rearing or killing an animal – not available for sale in the UK.
Cultured meat. See above.
Fermentation. A new technology that is growing protein to “rival animal products” through fermentation.
Meat-less meat. Gaining huge traction in the UK as a processed meat alternative, made with plant proteins like pea, soy, mushroom or wheat. Most well-known are brands like Quorn, as well as Beyond Meat and newer brands like La Vie, with its pork-less bacon.
Meat. Actual animals, reared on farms (or in factories). Look out for labels like organic and free range for higher welfare. Visit your local butcher to find out what farms are in your area and how they rear animals.