As scientists grow steaks from a single cell, Tomé Morrissy-Swan reports on the future of 'clean meating'.
A sizzling burger, thickly cut and grill-ready - not sourced from farm-dwelling livestock, but in test tubes: this is where the future of our food is being developed and, following an announcement from Quorn, whose "ultimate" quarter pounder will go on sale next month, looks set to herald the dawn of "clean meating".
Lab-grown alternatives are racing to catch up with plant-powered ones - a prospect that gathered steam at Berlin's first New Food Conference last week, which brought together scientists, start-ups (and even the odd farmer) in a shared quest of fixing impending planetary Armageddon.
Ditching animal protein is seen by an increasing number of people as the only way to deal with the fact that, by 2050, the world's population will hit 10 billion, rendering the demand for meat higher than the industry's ability to supply it. According to the journal Science, animal farming provides just 18 per cent of our calories, yet 83 per cent of agricultural land is dedicated to it, while greenhouse gas emissions, water and overzealous antibiotic use pose further problems.
Experts such as Hanni Rutzler, the nutritional scientist, do not predict a shift to total veganism in our lifetime; meat is part of our historical and cultural existence. But in a world where the average person consumes 1000 chickens in their lifetime, while the environment buckles under the pressure, cultured meat is fast becoming a likely saviour.
Also known as cell-based meat, clean meat, in-vitro meat or lab-grown meat (a term one developer is dead against), the idea is that scientists can nurture a cell into something that almost exactly mimics the real deal. While nothing is on the market yet, beef, which has the greatest environmental cost, is leading the way. Fish, chicken and pork aren't far behind, though Finless Foods, a company dedicated to bringing sustainable seafood alternatives to the world, is yet to put a date on when its tuna will reach market. These companies are largely run by non-vegans, with their target consumers being the same group.
An expensive and complex process - two journalists tried a cultured Mosa Meat burger in 2013, which cost £247,000 to produce and deemed it too dry - it involves a stem cell being taken from a live animal (via a harmless biopsy) and transferred to a nutrient-dense culture media, where it multiplies, and is fed sugars, salts, amino acids and nutrients in similar conditions to the animal's body, before the meat (muscle and fat) is extracted. One tissue sample could potentially create 80,000 burgers. The end product is still crude, so burgers are currently the focus; juicy rib-eyes are a long way off, though Israel's Aleph Foods has created a steak using 3D technology which, it says, grows the essential four elements - fat, muscle fibres, blood vessels and connective tissue - "together like real meat".
From a handful of companies and universities, there are now more than 20 competing to achieve commercially viable production, says Dr Marianne Ellis, of the University of Bath, whose work focuses on scaling up production. Funding from governments, private companies and Silicon Valley investors is streaming in. Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Kimbal Musk, brother of Tesla founder Elon, are backers of Memphis Meats, a Californian outfit promising to have its products on supermarket shelves by 2021.
"Two to three years should be doable for a high price point," explains Dr Mark Post of Mosa Meat, the company that first produced a cultured burger, which was co-funded by Google's Sergey Brin. Last year, it accrued another £6.4 million in funding. While there's currently no exact figure for the industry's worth, Richard Parr, managing director of the Good Food Institute in Europe, points out that "tens of millions of pounds have been invested in cell-based meat companies". Mosa Meat suggests that products such as theirs will likely hit high-end restaurants before dinner tables, with the average cost coming in at around $11 (£8) per dish.
Not all diners will be thrilled with these developments, however. Dr Chris Bryant, who for his PhD analysed public perception of such products, told me: "The initial reaction is of finding it gross. After a few minutes, people are much more accepting. The young are more willing than the old, men more than women, the Left more than the Right."
Plant-based alternatives to meat have had less of an image problem to overcome: meat substitutes are seeing double-digit growth year on year, according to Sainsbury's, while a OnePoll survey found 42 per cent of us wanted to increase consumption of such food. As the Western trend for flexitarianism soars, the growing success of milk alternatives demonstrates that people can change if products meet expectations.
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At Halo Burger in London, a "bleeding" plant-based burger by Beyond Meat is almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Having tried it, I found it to be far superior to a bad-quality burger, though not quite as juicy as a premium option. Beyond Meat is sold in several stores and restaurants across America, such as T G I Fridays, while the Impossible Burger - made up of wheat, coconut oil and konjac, a starchy root - is currently on the menu at Beef & Liberty, "one of Hong Kong's best beef burger restaurants".
The fact remains that meat substitutes still cost an average 43 per cent more than animal equivalents - added to which the fear of the unknown may hold consumers back further. But cultured products are safe, healthy, and ethical, says Dr Ellis: "The method of production is based on tissue engineering, which is very safe. I'm not anticipating that there would be risks, as long as basic culture methods are followed." Assessment and evaluation by the Food Standards Agency would be required before products came to market.
Livestock are routinely given antibiotics by farmers as a preventive measure to avoid them becoming ill, and thus damaging their ability to be used for food. "One of our first priorities was not to use antibiotics," says Post. A huge advantage of in-vitro meat, then, is that no such drugs are involved - given the rise in human antibiotic resistance, and the negative effects such tablets can have on our gut health, this could be transformative.
There's a lower risk of other contaminations - often picked up from unsanitary conditions on farms, where animals can be kept in close contact: a swab test of Memphis Meat's poultry came up clear, versus other poultry containing E.coli and salmonella.
Farmers are understandably concerned. Will they be out of work? Illtud Llyr Dunsford, a Welsh farmer who works with Ellis, says: "If you talk to farmers who don't understand the technology, then there's an element of fear. It's not a dissolution of agriculture, it's the evolution of agriculture. Brexit and the end of agricultural subsidies are a much bigger threat."
David Kay, communications manager at Memphis Meats, agrees: "We don't believe that cell-based meat is going to entirely replace agriculture. We're in the midst of a massive increase in demand for meat - we call it an 'and not or' scenario. "We need multiple meat methods to coexist in order to feed the world."
Culturally, we're obsessed with protein - but the plant and cell-based alternatives are able to meet our body's requirements perfectly well. As with most things, our ability to embrace a new way of eating is mostly in the mind.
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Beef has long been the prime focus of "clean meating" - it has the greatest environmental impact - but start-ups are experimenting with other kinds. Benjamina Bollag, chief executive of Bristol-based HigherSteaks, focuses on pork, which is "a growing market, beef is declining. There are lots of challenges - antibiotics, African swine flu - and with a lot of pork imported in the UK, it's easier to be local [with cell-based pork]."
New Delhi's Clear Meat focuses on chicken, the world's second-most eaten meat. "I tried being a vegan activist," says Kartik Dixit, Clear Meat's co-founder. "I turned maybe two friends vegan in three years. Food is a habit, so you have to provide people with a good alternative." The company seeks to produce India's first cell-based chicken minced meat.
After the creation of its 2013 burger, Mosa Meat has continued to push for wide-scale production, adding that half of the total meat market is made up of ground products. Its focus remains on beef because "cows are the least efficient links in production" though it adds "we plan to expand to other species in future".
San Francisco start-up Just made its name through plant-based eggs and mayo, but is now branching into the world of cultured fried chicken. This will launch "in the next two to three years", it estimates, adding: "We'll start at high-end restaurants and then move to retail."
Michael Selden, the founder of Finless Foods, believes cell-based fish will help rescue our depleted oceans. "Cell-based beef has no antibiotics or hormones, but fish has the added benefit of no mercury or plastic, so there's a greater health differential than with meat. We're not vegan, we do kill animals, but we're trying to remedy the wasteful food system."
Projected population of the world by 2050: 10 billion.
Proportion of the population that wants to consume more plant-based meat alternatives: 42 per cent.
The number of burgers that one tissue sample of cell-based meat could potentially create: 80,000.