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What is lab-grown meat? The implications of lab-grown meat discussed by the experts

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14 min read
cultured meat in a petri dish, alongside other science equipment and scissors

Often touted as one of the best solutions to environmental and food system challenges, cellular or lab-grown meat allows people to enjoy the unique flavours and textures of meat all without harm to animals or the environment. But, even with all these benefits in mind, how do you convince people that lab-grown meat is the way to go – to put down the hamburger and pick up lab-grown meat as an alternative?

What was once considered the ultimate “Frankenstein” food is now being hailed as one of the greatest solutions to our environmental problems. Predictions state that lab-grown meat will account for a third of all meat sold globally by 2040. This article, based on the podcast “Are we ready for lab-grown meat?” explores the topic of cultivated or lab-grown meat, and just how we can convince everyday people to get it on their plates as an alternative to the “real thing”. 

We spoke to experts Che Connon, Co-founder and CEO of 3D Bio-Tissues Ltd, Didier Toubia, Co-Founder & CEO of Aleph Farms, and Peter Verstrate, Co-Founder & Chief Operating Officer of Mosa Meat about why people should pick up lab-grown meat as an alternative to the immensely popular plant-based meats, and what it would take to convince consumers to do so.

Get the full experience by listening to the podcast of this article. 

What is lab-grown meat?

There are common misconceptions about what lab-grown meat actually is – with much rhetoric being spouted about “Frankenstein” meat. In addition to this, there are so many terms that encompass the idea of lab-grown meat, such as cellular meat, cultivated, and in-vitro meat; are these all just umbrella terms for the same thing? 

Just what is lab-grown meat made from, and is all this scary-sounding jargon surrounding it warranted? Peter Verstrate tells us that the idea of lab-grown meat is not a new one, with a lot of research going into making the idea more of the reality it is today. He also states that the process behind it is fairly simple – even if a little unconventional. 

“Various companies have various interpretations of the technology [behind lab-grown meat], but, essentially what it is, is a product that replaces traditional meat grown from the same cells that make the tissues of the animals that we eat only produced outside of the animal in bioreactors, making use of tissue engineering.

“The basic idea is actually quite old, like pre-World War Two old, but the first person to take action here was a Dutchman called Vilem. He patented cultured meat in the 90s, so roughly 25 years ago today, and a security subsidy from the Dutch government at the time to initiate the first-ever research effort that was directed at making meat through tissue engineering.”

Is lab-grown meat vegan?

Because lab-grown meat utilises cells that are taken from real, living animals, lab-grown meat will technically not be vegan or vegetarian. Typically, this demographic isn’t the target audience for lab-grown meat as, when lab-grown meat eventually hits the market and becomes a feature in supermarkets, it will allow omnivores to continue eating meat in its best possible form without the need to worry about the ethical and environmental concerns that come from the meat industry – such as factory farming and the implications it has on the environment. 

What are the advantages of lab-grown meat? 

With the meat industry being one of the biggest polluters globally, and consumers simply loving the flavours and textures that simply cannot be replicated with plant-based alternatives, bringing lab-grown meat into the mainstream can only bring benefits to the table, right? Unfortunately, lab-grown meat could be considered a bit of a difficult subject to some – with many consumers outright objecting to the idea, and others believing it to be a fantastic solution to a whole range of problems globally. 

Because of this, one of the main objectives and challenges is getting consumers to actually want to eat lab-grown meat. Didier Toubia states that lab-grown meat could be the solution to reducing the effects the meat industry has on the global environment and that, although projected levels of acceptance of lab-grown meat are fairly high, challenges still arise with getting it on people’s plates in lieu of the authentic stuff.

“There are three approaches for addressing the challenges with meat production, which is one of the biggest problems in terms of environmental ethics. The first approach is to eat less meat. And that’s obviously one viable solution. The issue is that it does not particularly work, and the demand for meat continues to increase annually. Even in the US, which has been one of the pioneers of this new generation of plant-based products like Impossible and Beyond Meat, consumption continues to increase. 

“Meat analogues present only 1 or 1.2% of the total meat market and this, in principle, is good; but does not really work. The plant-based approach is to replace meat with plants, so to process plants in order for them to look and taste as close as possible to the meat we have cultivated within the country. 

“The meat industry is something completely different. We need to change the production process. We believe that once there will be lab-grown meat in the market, without the downsides, we will see significant acceptance. We have performed quite a few consumer surveys, summits as well, in Europe, France, Germany and the UK, also in the US and Asia, and we do see a very high level of expected acceptance for [lab-grown meat].”

Nowadays, with the availability of meat in supermarkets, there is a certain disconnect between the consumer eating the product and the animal it came from. No longer do we walk into the butchers and see the entire carcass of the animal from which your meat is coming – it makes the choice of eating meat more simple and something that allows you not to question your own ethics. For example, many will think that chickens and cows are adorable but then not connect the dots as to the fact the meat they’re eating is from those exact animals. 

“Over history, [we’ve seen] a constant kind of disconnection from violence. We’ve seen 100 years ago when animals were slaughtered in front of the people. That still happens in the wet markets in Asia, and we’ve seen slaughterhouses in the cities, and outside the cities. [Because of this,] consumers are more and more willing to disconnect the meat from the dead animal,” Didier Toubia says.

Didier Toubia goes on to say that this kind of disconnect could help to convince people to eat lab-grown meat as it is not connected to the violence of slaughter that comes from authentic meat production whilst also helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems – such as food security. 

“Even in the butcher shop, we don’t see the whole animal or the whole carcass. And so this disconnection between the dead animal and the meat is a natural evolution of the connection between the consumers and food. Beyond that, cultivated meat is also a great solution for food security, and with climate change developing today, the significant stress we’ve seen following COVID-19 on global trade, the resilience of food production, and stress on securing high-quality nutrition for anyone, anywhere, cultivated meat is also a great piece of this global food system transition moving forward.”

How is lab-grown meat made?

Just how close is lab-grown meat to the real thing? Interestingly, lab-grown meat doesn’t have to function in the same way the muscle it is replicating does as it is solely being created for consumption. Che Connon states that this is actually an advantage of lab-grown meat. 

Rather than creating authentic animal muscles which could, in theory, be transplanted and used as the real thing, simply creating lab-grown meat as meat is rendering the challenges behind lab-grown meat more manageable – helping to tackle food poverty and environmental issues faster.

“I got into the area through making or trying to tissue engineer transplantable materials, pieces of the body, and they have to be functional to work … it can’t be just halfway, it has to work fully out of the box. The advantage of the tissue-engineered meat sector is that it doesn’t have to be completely functional out of the box. The muscle that you’re using in a burger doesn’t need to behave in the same way that muscle would originally work inside the animal. It is this which gives you the advantage of allowing you to break the challenge down somewhat. It seems that, at least when the business models are understood, the hope is that the customers will also accept that. 

“So you start off with a simple or relatively simple pâté and then build up to a steak of some description as the technologies come on board, but it does allow you to kind of make those technological steps forward, while still creating something that’s solving these issues [of the meat industry and environmental decline.]”

Sometimes someone will want a specific cut of meat – a filet mignon or a wagyu ribeye. Could the technology develop enough to do this – to make a structured and complex whole cut of meat? Che Connon goes on to say that, unfortunately, the technology and challenges behind this kind of endeavour mean that it isn’t possible yet – but that isn’t to say that we’ll never reach that point as tissue templating could be the key to unlocking specific cuts of meat which have been lab-grown.

“It also depends on what we are making. Are we making a steak, are we making mince? Are we making a product that’s 99% plant and 1% meat? So there are lots of different answers to that question. What is certainly true looking forward to that kind of the big goal of structured whole cut meat, then you’ve got all the issues around the number of cells required. These are the challenges, and a lot of these are not yet answered. So I can’t tell you how to make a steak because the answer is not there yet.

“What we’ve taken from our many years of tissue engineering in the cornea and skin is a process we call tissue templating. And so we’ve taken a different approach to traditional tissue engineering, in that we come from the hypothesis that the cells are able in the body and during development during wound healing are able to create tissue and create functional tissue. 

“The ability to create tissue is inherent to those cells. And it’s a matter of identifying the environmental cues that those cells require to organise themselves and create functional tissue or structured tissue. And so we have over the years identified several key cues, both chemical and physical, that direct the cells to self-organise, and produce, an aligned, highly structured, extracellular matrix. And so that’s the approach. We’ve taken a rudimentary level, we direct the cells to grow into tissues. And the advantage is that all the material then, of that complete tissue is cell-derived.”

Why choose cultivated meat over plant-based alternatives?

Plant-based meat has seen a boom in popularity in recent years, so is there even a need for lab-grown meat? Could this product simply be a waste of money or cause an oversaturation of the market, or could it be giving consumers exactly what they want – a true alternative to meat linked with violence and ecological catastrophe? 

Peter Verstrate states that, although there are indeed arguments out there that we don’t really need lab-grown meat on the market, the reverse can be said in that people, nowadays, don’t need meat at all because a vegan or vegetarian diet is perfectly viable. 

“There are arguments that we don’t need cultured meat, or maybe in a broader sense, there’s an argument to be made that we don’t need to eat meat. You can reverse this by saying we need cultured meat as much as we need traditional meat. From a nutritional point of view, most of us can do without it. There are many vegetarians on this planet to this day.”

However, Peter goes on to say that lab-grown meat could be just the thing to give consumers just what they want – a solution to the primal urge to want to eat meat, one that can’t be sated by plant-based meat alone, and one that is as close to the real thing as possible whilst eliminating a majority of the downsides that come from traditional meat. 

“But that’s not the whole story, there’s also craving for meat, and that’s a strong force. I’m only really satisfied with the product that offers the same experience that meat gives us and the majority of consumers are simply not willing to let go of meat. That’s where cultured meat comes in. That’s exactly the promise of cultured meat – to satisfy the craving while eradicating virtually all of those downsides of traditional meat. And yeah, plant-based alternatives are getting better, but they’re not yet in the same experience; they’re still different – or at least for the majority of consumers they are.”

So, how can we convince people to purchase lab-grown meat rather than the real thing – or even as an alternative to plant-based meats? Didier Toubia argues that familiarity with the end product is one of the main selling points, but also the fact that lab-grown meats are designed to be meat in their highest form of quality, all without growth hormones and less bad fats, will convince groups like the health-conscious Generation Z to buy-in to lab-grown meat. 

“I think in a new category of food, the word meat is introduced and the narrative and the familiarity with the technique would be important. Studies show that the more consumers hear about cultivated meat and are familiar with the technology and its benefits, the more acceptance they have. Overall, based on the last surveys we performed in the UK, and then in the US, we saw an overwhelming expected acceptance of above 75% in the global population, and the younger generation is driving the acceptance with rates above 90%. 

“Generation Z has drivers different from the younger population, the primary motivators for potentially switching to cultivated meat are primarily focused on animal welfare and environmental benefits. While, for the older generation, the main benefits perceived with cultivated meat are based on health and nutrition, namely, using no antibiotics, and the ability to optimise the nutritional profile of meat – especially red meat with less saturated fat and cholesterol. The market is, as we believe, ready for it and, of course, there will be some centres in the country where we turn this expected acceptance into an actual act in the grocery store. But it looks like it looks relatively promising on both ends.”

When can we expect lab-grown meat to hit our shelves?

With the idea of lab-grown meat sounding like it could be a great addition to the market, one that would have a positive effect on the environment and food scarcity, when could we expect these kinds of products to hit our shelves? 

Peter Verstrate says it depends on the end product – something full of filler, or something as true to the real thing as possible. To produce such a ground-breaking product on a commercial scale, Peter says that it will be a minimum of two years to even find minced meat in supermarkets – and around 10 years from now for more solid cuts of lab-grown meat to be available. 

“Is it a hybrid product, as it’s called, which contains some animal cells and a lot of soy? Or is it a really full-blown textured product that’s indistinguishable from a steak? Or is it the minced product? I can give you our answer, we’re going for mincemeat, a 100% minced meat, and we expect it to be two or three years from today when we can seriously go to the markets with quantities that are enough for restaurants and a few stores. Before you find cultured meats on the corner of the streets, in your everyday supermarkets, that’s got to be closer to 10 years from today.”

How are attitudes shifting?

How have attitudes changed towards the idea of eating lab-grown meat? Previously, it almost seemed taboo to broach the subject; but what is the general perception of the idea nowadays? With the climate crisis only being exacerbated by the meat industry and the availability of food is an ever-pressing issue, just how do people see lab-grown meat? 

Che Connon believes that attitudes are rapidly changing for the better and this could mean that, by the time lab-grown meat launches, the market will be ready for it. 

“I think attitudes are changing and changing quite rapidly. When I cast my mind back to even a couple of years ago, when we first mentioned the concept people would know, but it has grabbed the public opinion – fortunately, so far, in a very positive way. Of course, we [are] very keen to maintain that kind of a positive note and not let any kind of pseudoscience come creeping in that scares everybody off.”

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