The world is continuing to experiment with lab-grown meat and dairy. But will consumers embrace the trend? By Andrea Graves
It feels like it has been a long time coming, but Impossible Burger patties finally arrived in Countdown supermarkets this month. The patties are vegan but meat-like thanks to the added blood. Not real blood, of course, but a version of blood's heme component that is created with biotech trickery.
The American-made patties are not entirely new to Aotearoa. Four years ago, Air New Zealand sparked a debate over the future of our agricultural industry when it became the first airline in the world to serve the meatless burgers to its premium customers. And they have been available at select eateries for several months.
For consumers, though, it means more choice. The Impossible Burger joins the Beyond Burger, which is also American, and several Kiwi options.
The "fake meat" industry has been the hottest new thing in Silicon Valley for several years now. Alternative sources of protein that still taste like meat are touted as essential to feed the planet, slow climate change, conserve water, reduce agricultural pollution and animal exploitation, and even ward off heart disease. A local survey by Rabobank and food-waste charity KiwiHarvest last April found 30 per cent of us want to eat less meat, and 45 per cent are open to trying meat alternatives.
Over the past few months, however, there have been signs investors are starting to get nervous about the future of plant-based meats. Declining sales and growing losses have been particularly damaging for Beyond Meat, the company behind Beyond Burger, which has seen its share price fall by nearly two-thirds since June last year.
The Financial Times reports sales of plant-based meat in the US declined by 0.5 per cent last year, after a 46 per cent rise in 2020. In the UK, sales tailed off in the second half of 2021, although they experienced a rebound in December.
Canadian meat group Maple Leaf Foods, which owns the plant-based meat brand Lightlife, said in February consumers had been happy to try plant-based meats, but had not been sufficiently impressed to keep buying them. A review showed many consumers viewed them as an "expensive novelty" and were uncomfortable or confused about how they were made.
Is the "flip" turning into a flop? It's still far too early to say, particularly in New Zealand, where plant-based proteins have yet to go mainstream. But according to Countdown, demand for fresh meat alternatives has grown by 20 per cent in the past year.
Impossible Foods, a privately held company whose investors include Sir Peter Jackson, keeps expanding, although it has recently hired a new chief executive to navigate what some media are now describing as "a growing set of concerns for the space".
In January, China announced cultivated meat and other "future foods" would be part of its five-year agricultural plan for the first time. And other governments, including Singapore, Qatar and Israel, are stumping up money, too. They join global companies and private investors who are still hoping for food and agriculture's most consequential disruption since plants and animals were domesticated.
The lowest-tech category in the "alt-protein" sector is typified by the Beyond Burger, which is made of ingredients such as pea and bean protein, potato starch and beet juice extract. This generation of plant-only faux meat is a step up in flavour and texture from conventional vegan burgers, sausages and mince, but it may still be just the appetiser.
At the deeply adventurous end of the buffet is cultivated meat, also known as lab-grown meat, cultured meat or cellular agriculture. This involves taking a source of animal cells, feeding them nutrients, and then instructing them to divide and mature into muscle cells as they would in an animal. The result is a mince-like mash of real muscle cells.
There are companies internationally trying to grow meat from beef, lamb, pork, chicken, fish, prawn, duck, horse and kangaroo cells. It's hard to create anything resembling steak or fish fillet, but it can be done by growing cells on edible, 3D-printed scaffolds.
"This is something we are beginning to research here in our lab," says Laura Domigan, a senior lecturer in chemical and materials engineering at the University of Auckland.
The concept of cultivated meat is compelling for those who can stomach its strangeness. It eliminates animal welfare issues, uses far less land and water, and has a turnaround time of weeks instead of years. It introduces the ability to grow meat where local climate or land scarcity makes conventional farming impossible. It also has fewer greenhouse gas emissions, according to available analyses, but only if the considerable energy required comes from low-carbon sources.
The allure is such that Nestlé, Unilever and Merck have invested heavily in the sector. Cultivated-meat companies are reported to have raised $366 million in 2020. By the end of that year, more than 70 companies were focused on developing cultivated-meat inputs, services or end products.
Generous investors are crucial, because the expertise and facilities do not yet exist to manufacture cultivated meat at a large scale or reasonable price. Only Singapore has approved it for sale.
"Every time they go to a bigger scale, it's a very expensive experiment," says Domigan, who previously worked in tissue engineering, creating tissues and even whole organs for medical purposes. "If this tech is to solve large global issues it must be done cheaply. I have every confidence people will figure out how to do it."
Domigan works with Olivia Ogilvie, a research fellow at the University of Canterbury. Both are judges in the XPrize for Tomorrow's Proteins, a US$15 million ($21.6m) global technology prize with a mission to "feed the next billion". They also work with Palmerston North's Riddet Institute to examine potential issues with cultivated meat.
Much of it is funded by the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and the Singaporean Agency for Science, Technology and Research. "We're working to find the best sources of animal cells, capitalising on New Zealand's knowledge around livestock farming," Domigan says.
Aotearoa's role in future food developments needs careful thought, says Abby Thompson, chief executive of food science and innovation hub FoodHQ.
"Why would we build the infrastructure to cultivate meat here? It makes more sense to do that near where it will be sold," says Thompson. "But there's a huge system that needs to be established behind this technology, from the steel vessels to the amino acids the cells need, to the intellectual property our scientists could develop. And for plant proteins, should each company build its own protein extraction facility or should there be shared ones available?"
We could also stick with animals and serve the wealthy with the small proportion of the world's meat we already grow, she says. Tasmania and Ireland are also chasing that market.
But there's more than just meat on the table. "I'd be vegan if it wasn't for cheese" is a line Matt Gibson hears frequently, which is why he's focusing on making cow-free mozzarella that is indistinguishable from the real thing. The New Zealander is co-founder and chief executive of New Culture, a company trying to capture a slice of the US's massive mozzarella market.
"Mozzarella is the biggest-selling cheese here because they eat so much pizza," Gibson tells the Listener from his San Francisco base. "Most of us love cheese, but it's surprising how unsustainable it is. And I hear a lot of expletives in the same sentence as 'plant-based cheese' in terms of taste."
The magic ingredient that provides cheese's melt, flavour and stretch is a protein cluster called casein, he says. New Culture manufactures it using a process called precision fermentation, which has been used for decades to produce proteins using microbial hosts as "cell factories". (It's also used to make insulin, vitamins and other pharmaceuticals.)
The company attracted US$25 million from investors last year to finance its move into commercial production. "Biotech is expensive," says Gibson. "And casein is a particularly hard protein to make. As far as we know, we are the only company able to make it using precision fermentation."
Others are trying. Auckland-based start-up Daisy Lab also aims to produce casein with precision fermentation. In January, it received US$250,000 in venture capital, and the founders hope to have pilot products in 2024.
The process could disrupt more than food. A Japanese company, Spiber, is using it to make artificial spider silk, which can be made into durable clothing.
It also promises animal-free wool, cashmere, leather and fur. And Wellington company Humble Bee Bio is using the technique to develop a tough bioplastic.
Fonterra's chief science and technology officer, Jeremy Hill, says he's "really excited" about the potential of precision fermentation. Fonterra holds shares in Boston-based Motif FoodWorks, which uses the process to improve plant-based food products.
"We see an opportunity for those ingredients to sit alongside our dairy ingredients to create affordable and highly functional food. Our approach to this is science-based but also commercial," Hill says.
A new ingredient that's already pimping plant-based meat is the heme in Impossible Burger patties. Its original home is in the roots of soy plants, where, like the heme in animal blood, it transports oxygen. The heme is approved by Food Standards Australia New Zealand, but it was a controversial approval because Impossible Foods' heme is produced by genetically modified yeast.
"The Impossible Burger is definitely closer to real meat, thanks to the heme," says Amos Palfreyman, FoodHQ's business development manager. "It's been hard for people with a taste for high-quality meat to find a good plant-based substitute on New Zealand shelves."
Like others, Palfreyman thinks plant-based offerings will be transformed by ingredients from other technologies. For example, adding small amounts of cultivated animal fat will dramatically enhance the animal-like taste, texture and sizzle, and some commentators say this is the most likely use of cultivated products in the next decade or so.
At the Riddet Institute, food scientists are developing protein products that combine plants with dairy or meat, either cultivated or conventional. Its director, Distinguished Professor Harjinder Singh, says consumers have shown a clear preference to change their diets. Mixing plant proteins with dairy or meat may overcome some of the flavour problems, he says.
It's because of this taste test that many alternative protein burgers tend to be higher in salt, fat and additives than meat and lower in protein, says Professor Joanne Hort, a consumer and sensory scientist at the institute and Massey University. With MBIE funding, Hort is collaborating with Domigan and Ogilvie to find out what people in New Zealand and Singapore think of cultivated meat.
Preliminary results from Aotearoa show the more meat people eat, the less aware they are of cultivated meat. "Some people find the thought of it disgusting," says Hort. "But flavourwise, it will be more familiar than plant-based proteins."
Cultivated meat is a long way off, however. "There are forecasts of it being the norm by the 2030s," says Ogilvie, "but although it's most likely going to happen, nobody knows the scale, the time frame or the percentage of the market it will take."
Milk made the same way is also unlikely to replace cow milk any time soon, because of the massive amount of infrastructure that would be required.
"You'd probably have to double the world's sugar production to produce the equivalent of just the protein in the world's milk," says Fonterra's Hill, "let alone milk's other nutrients."
However, Hill sees profitability as the biggest challenge.
"It may be possible to produce some milk components, but I don't see precision fermentation in the short to medium term as being commercially viable to replace milk itself."
Early predictions that the trend could wipe out animal agriculture have probably been exaggerated. But those in the "future food" sector remain optimistic that our diets will eventually change.
"When we look at the projected population growth, the rising middle class and longer lifespans, demand for protein will continue," says Singh. "The proportion of plant proteins may grow faster, but for the foreseeable future there will still be plenty of demand for animal protein."