Cultivated Meat: “Soul” Food

The global demand for meat is set to double by 2050. With Clean Meat technology making considerable headway, are we ready to make the conscious shift to this more sustainable source of meat?

Background

With rising earnings in large countries in Asia and Africa, the global demand for meat is set to double by 2050. The industry warns that there is not much scope for expansion to meet the burgeoning demand unless countries clear huge swathes of the rain forest and convert them into gargantuan industrial-scale ranches.

Even in the existing production, there is a lot of wastage as the consumer is getting increasingly finicky in his culinary habits. Nearly eighty years ago, Winston Churchill, in an article published in the Strand magazine, spoke of a day, when the human race would “escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium."

A breakthrough in creating meat under lab conditions was achieved in 2013 by the Dutch pharmacologist and Professor Mark Post. He created the meat source by using animal cells, without slaughtering the animal and hence the name - “clean meat”, “cultured meat” or “in-vitrio meat. Clean meat is not to be confused with vegetarian plant-based burgers or other meat- substitutes. It is claimed that it tastes just like natural meat or even better, as it is not genetically modified and is antibiotic-free.

Analysis

Livestock farming has been blamed as the second major contributor of man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions after fossil fuel. Also, the huge tracts of pastures, water, green grass, fodder, antibiotics etc required by the industry have created unprecedented stress on resources.

The current practice of factory processing of animal parts is an inefficient process with 50% being wasted or used as animal feed. The artificially accelerated growth (called feed conversion efficiency) to boost profits using banned proteins and antibiotics goes against nature. It also contributes to increased resistance to antibiotics in humans. It is an inhumane industry known for inflicting terrible pain and discomfort to the animals.   

Over the past few years, scientists around the world have made considerable headway on “clean meat” production. A small animal biopsy is bathed in plant nutrients under lab conditions to “grow” the clean meat. Since meat demands are specific to certain body parts like chicken legs/ breast etc, technology can “grow” these parts individually, without compromising on the taste. It is being claimed that cultured meat is a lot purer with no risks of salmonella, acetobacter and E. coli. 

In Russia, the Ochakov Food Ingredients plant has produced a 40-gram “meatloaf”. It has promised that cultured meat could appear on Russian shelves as soon as 2023. Just, a food company in San Francisco is now producing chicken nuggets grown from cells of a chicken feather that fell from the bird naturally. Josh Tetrick, Chief of Operations of Just inc. says that by the end of this year, the nuggets produced by them will be available in a few restaurants.

Eventually, this meat production is to shift out of laboratories and to be put in large-scale manufacturing plants. The advantages it poses have made it an attractive investment opportunity for many Silicon Valley giants. 

In India, at IIT Guwahati, researchers have developed lab-grown meat, opening up vistas for clean meat production. In a partnership between Humane Society International (HIS) India and Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad, attempts are being made to promote technology to develop clean meat while bringing start-ups and regulators together. 

Counterpoint

The biggest hurdle is making the “Cultured Meat” acceptable to the consumer. In polls conducted across Europe, a large number of people expressed disgust at the idea. In Asia, where religion and culture dictates eating habits, the acceptance of cultured meat may take longer.   

Despite its apparent advantages, some regulatory concerns of clean meat might arise. Governments will need watertight guarantees from the scientific community before giving necessary permissions. Human trials will have to be conducted. It is also likely that traditional meat producers might lobby against clean meat production as overnight empires will collapse. 

Assessment

  • Clean meat is definitely a viable means to address food shortage concerns. However, mass production processes have to be stabilised. This requires considerable funding and since the awareness is just growing, it might take longer than being claimed by the scientific community.
  • The social movement of “Farm to fork” will be steadily replaced by “Lab to Table” and people do not have to give up on foods that they have enjoyed for years as clean meat is ethically sourced and cruelty-free. 
  • Although people might be reluctant initially, it is likely that cultured meat will gain acceptance as people gain more exposure and awareness to the technology. 
  • There should be more government-sponsored research and investment in clean meat technology as it will generate considerable income and can boost the economy significantly as well as providing food safety and security. 

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