In 2013, scientist Mark Post and food technician Peter Verstrate revealed the first cultured beef burger at a London press conference. It had taken them seven years and cost €250,000. Fortunately, the technology has since come a long way, and it looks like ‘cultivated meat’ is about to become commercially viable.
It is not just lab-grown meat whose time has come. Plant-based meats, designed to be indistinguishable from the real thing, have already hit the market. The popularity and demand for alternative meats are now causing them to go mainstream.
There are several reasons for the sudden surge in alternative proteins and meat substitutes. These include concerns about sustainability, health, water consumption, antibiotic resistance and diseases. In more recent years, two main factors have also come into play.
Climate change has led to global carbon targets being set, and given the resources used by the meat industry, something needs to change. Currently, the sector is responsible for forests being cleared, vast water consumption and around 15% of greenhouse gas emissions.
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised another major concern — zoonotic pathogens. These are diseases that are passed from animals to humans. They are on the rise as populations grow and the demand for meat rises. More land being cleared for agriculture would bring human populations ever closer to wild animals, increasing the chances diseases would jump the species barrier.
The technology needed to create meat substitutes is finally here, and the products are proving popular, driving demand and making headlines. But how far along the road to commercialization are they?
There have been replacements for meat products for decades, but they were aimed at vegetarians. The difference between a veggie burger and the emerging alternatives are the new products are designed to taste like meat and are primarily marketed at meat eaters.
These plant-based meats mostly avoid the issues of sustainability and scalability faced by traditional livestock foods. They are already commercially viable and sold globally in fast food outlets like Burger King, Subway, and KFC.
From a global perspective, such meat analogues lessen the environmental burden of animal agriculture. However, plant-based meat may not necessarily be healthy. While the products are generally higher in fiber and lower in cholesterol, they are still highly processed foods. Consequently, they can be high in sodium and, to mimic meat, may have additives, oils and thickeners.
This is why Pinduoduo, China’s largest agriculture platform serving 824 million customers, has teamed up with researchers from Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research to design and conduct a study into the nutritional impact of consuming these alternative proteins. The findings of the study would help consumers make more informed decisions, while giving manufacturers independent data to bench mark their products against.
Cultured meat (also known as cell-based) is further down the path to commercialization, though many of its proponents point to the rapid decline in prices compared to animal-raised meat.
The companies involved are almost at the point of commercial viability and are quick to show the benefits of their products. Future Meat, for example, points out that its cell-grown meat results in 80% fewer greenhouse emissions, 99% less land use, and 96% less freshwater use, while retaining 100% of the same nutritional value.
Another company a year or two from regulatory approval is Mosa Meat, whose team, led by Professor Mark Post, was behind the first cultured meat eight years ago. Their products are indistinguishable from conventional meat, even under a microscope.
The main issues Mosa Meat foresees is simply persuading people to get over the ‘ick’ factor and trying cell-based meat. After several surveys, they found acceptability varied from 20% to 90%, depending on the country, but say even 20% would be a great start.
Price and regulatory approval are the main hurdles at present. But Future Meat and Mosa Meat are just two of many players in the sector.
In December 2020, Singapore was the first in the world to approve Eat Just’s lab-grown “chicken bites” retailing at SGD$23. This is pricey for nuggets, but a considerable drop from the €250,000 price tag in 2013.
The adoption and switch to plant-based and lab-grown meats seem inevitable if people can’t give up burgers. As it stands, the planet simply won’t be able to meet future demand. Plant-based foods are already cheap and already on sale, and it seems only a matter of time before cultured meat catches up.
Join Maarten Bosch, CEO of Mosa Meat, and Yaakov Nahmias, founder of Future Meat, at Pinduoduo’s Food Systems Forum taking place on July 14-15. Register and secure your place for this online forum here.