Lab-grown meat risks reinforcing multinational corporate interests in the food supply chain despite its potential to relieve pressure on land and oceans.
That was a topic of discussion at a webinar held by green think tank Green Alliance last week, on the technology that can grow ‘meat’ from animal cells.
The session was chaired by environmental journalist and Wicked Leeks contributor, Anna Turns, with panellists discussing public concerns, funding of lab-grown meat, and the wider sustainable food movement.
Dr Alex Sexton, research fellow at the University of Sheffield, said: “There are two main public concerns with lab-grown meat. Food safety, and the contamination through growth media or in the end product. And the corporate concentration and reinforcing a food system run by multinationals.”
Sexton said a relative lack of public funding has led to research coming from private sectors and warned that this trend could see the new technology consolidate corporate ownership of food systems.
The debate around lab-grown meat was reignited earlier this month as the first food produced under the method came to market earlier this month. Chicken ‘bites’ produced by US company Eat Just went on sale in Singapore following a world-first regulatory clearance.
“Cellular agriculture does risk enforcing the power of multinationals, rather than disrupting it,” added Sexton, whose research looks at the role of tech firms in Silicon Valley in food systems. “That does have a number of consequences that we should be worried about and be critically thinking about, including the risk to cultural heritage, rural identities and livelihoods.”
“We need funding to counter and create a democratic sector. If we are to have cellular agriculture, we need to think how to radically innovate and scale up. If Burger King rolls this out, this could take off in a big way, and I have big concerns about that in the medium to long term and the impact of that.”
Another panellist, Alice Ritchie, climate change lead at the Country Land and Business Association, said lab-grown meat could be part of a “suite of low-carbon farming options” but it is not the silver bullet solution.
“We’re in a climate and nature crisis; we can’t wait for lab-grown solutions to be mainstream,” she said. “We need to stop relying on silver bullet solutions and make immediate changes in our supply chain.”
“In the UK, livestock is actually a really positive story. We do have a lot of small family farms,” Ritchie said. “We need the opposite of lab-grown meat – we need to move away from a reliance on fossil fuels, and that can’t be done without livestock.”
A third panellist, Jamie Arbib, co-founder of technology think tank RethinkX, said: “There could be huge knock on effects of this to take pressure off our oceans and soils. We need to decide what we’d want to do with that land.”
Cellular agriculture technology could be shared on an open-source platform, like some software, to counter the privatisation and corporate ownership of intellectual property, Arbib added.
Asked by Turns how farmers who fear they will be displaced could be incorporated into the lab-grown sector, Sexton said there are few crossovers, but this could include small donor herds to donate cells or supply plant-based ingredients.