Dutch professor Mark Post, pioneer of the world's first laboratory-grown burger, expects cultured meat to eventually replace traditionally-farmed beef.
Post, from Maastricht University in the Netherlands and a keynote speaker at an Auckland conference on farming and the future of food this week, said cultured meat could be on sale in supermarkets within the next four to five years. The two barriers are regulatory approval and being able to scale up production to produce sufficient material to meet demand.
The development of lab-grown beef stemmed from environmental concerns and fears that livestock farmers wouldn't be able to meet the growing demand for protein from China and India's middle class with the world's population expected to grow from 7 billion now to 9 billion by 2050.
Post said he doesn't think livestock farming and the new cultured meat will co-exist in another 25 years.
"I think in the long run when we have the product essentially the same, the animal welfare aspect will mean you'll see a gradual phase out of the traditional market," he said. "I may be reading too much into it but in the absence of any really hard-core, aggressively-voiced objections I hope there is potential to collaborate with the meat industry and co-develop this."
Post first got involved in a Dutch government-funded programme investigating lab-grown beef in 2008, while a professor of tissue engineering at the Einhoven University of Technology.
The team presented the lab-grown burger, which carried a $330,000 price tag, to the world two years ago in London, where food critics said it was better than substitutes from vegetable proteins but still not a tasty as the real thing and not worth the cost of producing it.
Post says since then they've been working on the technology to make the production process more sustainable and scalable, replacing blood serum sourced from cows with synthetic substitutes and working out how to add fats into the meat to improve the taste and texture.
The university has just set up a spin-off company Mosameat and is taking up to 10 million euros in investment to build a plant that proves the cultured meat can be produced at scale. Once that is completed in the next few years, Post says the company will look to licence the technology to manufacturers or out-source production.
There's more to food than just nutrition. There's no romance in the lab and we intend to develop that but we're not there yet. The animal welfare issue may be the decisive factor in restaurants and supermarkets.
It's estimated under the current technology and at scale the price will be around 65 euros a kilogram, which is still more expensive than traditionally-farmed beef but Post expects the price to drop over time as demand increases and as they boost the amount of material they get from a batch of cells, which has already increased four-fold.
The processed meat is made by harvesting muscle stem cells from a living cow, which are then fed in a controlled environment so they multiply and grow into strands of meat protein about a centimetre long and a few millimetres thick. Vegetable-based extracts such as amino acids, yeast, and algae that are standard in food technology are added to improve the taste, texture and colour and thousands of the strips are layered together to form a burger.
Post says they can only currently produce mincemeat rather than a steak which is more technologically difficult to produce and still a couple of years off.
He estimates the total number of cattle worldwide could be reduced from 1.5 billion to about 30,000, which are needed to provide the stem cells for the process. That would significantly reduce greenhouse gases and also free up a huge amount of arable land which could be used to grow more crops and feed more people, he said.
"The question people have to ask themselves is 'would they eat it?'," he said.
"There's more to food than just nutrition. There's no romance in the lab and we intend to develop that but we're not there yet. The animal welfare issue may be the decisive factor in restaurants and supermarkets," Post said.
(BusinessDesk is paid by Callaghan Innovation to cover the commercialisation of innovation).