My appetite for meat is known to regular readers (hello mama!). But as a self-righteous vegetarian, I refuse to eat from murdered animals. However, those beliefs are now being challenged by a heretic: cultured meat.
Cultured meat, also known as cultured meat, takes the farm to the lab. Cells are collected from an animal, cultured in vitro and then formed into known forms of edible flesh.
Industry advocates offer myriad benefits — and needs. According to the UN, about 80 billion animals are slaughtered for meat every year. This cattle produces an estimated 14.5% of global greenhouse gases, abrasions about 26% of the Earth’s surface, and uses 8% of global freshwater.
Population growth will eventually make these numbers unsustainable.
Cellular farming, its proponents say, can dramatically reduce damage. The products can satisfy our need for protein (and desire for meat), reduce our ecological footprint and prevent animal suffering.
CE Delft, an independent research agency, estimate that cultured meat could cause 92% less global warming and 93% less air pollution, while using 95% less land and 78% less water.
The nascent sector can also become big business. Consultancy McKinsey predicts the cultured meat market could reach $25 billion (€26 billion) by 2030.
It’s not like meat – it’s meat.
The industry has evolved rapidly since the world’s first lab-grown burger unveiled in 2013. The patty cost a whopping $330,000 to produce. Chefs described it as edible, but not delectable.
One of the scientists behind the project was Daan Luining. The sympathetic Dutchman then founded Meatable, a startup for cultured meat in Delft. The company claims its products are identical to traditional meats.
“It’s not like meat – it’s is meat,” Luining tells TNW.
After the burger launched, Luining tried to turn his own research into cellular farming into a business. His big idea came from a meeting with Mark Kotter, a neurosurgeon at Cambridge University.
Kotter demonstrated a groundbreaking approach to reprogramming human stem cells. Luining suggested applying the technique to a new target: pig and bovine cells.
He soon convinced Kotter that cultured meat could be of enormous value. In 2018, the duo teamed up with Krijn de Nood, a former McKinsey consultant, to co-found Meatable and bring their concept to market.
The meat lab
My previous forays into fake meats have been plant-based. I’ve tasted a smorgasbord of the produce, from McDonald’s McPlant burger to ? Vegan filet mignon from Juicy Marbles. They were admirable imitations, but there were always cracks in the illusion—and the copious sodium couldn’t hide them.
Cultured meat takes the facial expression to another level. At Meatable, the process begins with extracting a single-cell sample from a cow or pig. The cell is then grown in a bioreactor, where it receives various nutrients. These elements are mixed and molded to produce the finished meat.
One ingredient that Meatable does not use is fetal bovine serum (FBS), a commonly used growth medium in cultured meat. FBS is harvested from bovine fetuses after their mothers are slaughtered. In addition to affecting the “cruelty-free” marketing of cultured meat, the substance is extremely expensive to run.
Instead of FBS, Meatable uses pluripotent stem cells, which can multiply indefinitely and be converted into almost any cell type. These pluripotent cells mimic the natural growth of muscle and fat – two essential ingredients for meat to taste like meat.
Meatable first generates a single cell from the umbilical cord of a newborn animal, which is collected without causing damage. The company’s patented OPTi-OX system then rapidly converts the pluripotent cells into the desired muscle and fat cells.
Luining compares the technique with brewing beer in a barrel.
“We feed the cells, brew to make more cells, and then we turn them into muscle or fat,” he says. “This is basically what meat is made of. They are the cells of the animal — it is real meat.”
This puts my head on a spin. It’s not vegetarian, but if every drawback of conventional meat has been eliminated, why not eat it? And why can’t I find it in Europe?
The homeland of Meatable, the Netherlands, is often referred to as the birthplace of cultured meat. In 1948, Willem van Eelen, a student researcher at the medical school, came up with the idea after coming across experiments with stem cell technology to grow cells in a tank. He wondered if similar techniques could grow meat.
Van Eelen filed several patents to make his vision a reality, but struggled to raise enough money to carry out his plans. He did, however, lay the foundation for a new milestone in the Netherlands.
In 2005, Van Eelen helped convince the Dutch government to fund research into cell farming. The program prompted Mark Post, professor at Maastricht University, to develop the first cultured hamburger. His performance caught the attention of the mainstream media and turned many of Van Eelen’s doubters into believers.
In 2013, Post founded his own biotech startup, the Netherlands-based Most Meat. His work also inspired numerous scientists, including Luining.
However, Meatable plans to launch its products in Singapore – and with good reason.
Singapore already has cultured meat on the market. In 2020, the country’s food agency was the first regulatory agency to approve the sale of a lab-grown meat product: chicken developed by Eat Just, a California startup.
The city-state’s embrace of cultured meat is rational. Only 1% of its land is available for agriculture, requiring Singapore to import more than 90% of its food. To absorb global food supply shocks, the country aims to produce 30% of its food locally by 2030. Cultured meat offers the opportunity to maximize the island’s scarce agricultural resources.
Meatable will enter the market in partnership with Esco Aster, the world’s only recognized producer of cultured meat. The duo revealed plans this week to bring farmed pork to restaurants in Singapore by 2024 and to supermarkets by 2025.
Singapore’s regulatory landscape, diverse population and openness to emerging technologies have created an attractive testing ground for cultured meat. Meatable hopes it will provide a launch pad for global expansion.
“Let’s see if we can get it in different jurisdictions,” says Luining. “It’s all about practice, because this is pioneering work.”
In Europe, however, the road to regulatory approval is long.
The EU must give approval before cultured meat is sold in the union. The block’s legal requirements are usually clearly defined, but they take a long time to meet.
Still, there are encouraging signs from the union. In 2021, the REACT-EU program gave another Dutch company, Mosa Meat, €2 million to reduce the cost of farmed beef, while Horizon Europe provided €32 million for sustainable protein research. The European Commission also recently funded lab-grown foie gras.
In the meantime, the Netherlands is building up domestic support. In March, the Dutch government passed a motion to legalize the public testing of cultured meat. Four months later, the Meatable founders finally tasted their first product: pork sausage.
Financing has also increased. In April, the Dutch government earmarked 60 million euros for the development of cell agriculture. The grant was the largest amount ever in public funding for the sector.
These movements have gained worldwide recognition. ProVeg International, an NGO committed to reducing animal consumption, recently mentioned The Netherlands is the European top country for government support for cultured meat.
Although the country has lost its lead in the sector, it is starting to catch up again.
Legislation is not the only barrier to mainstream adoption. Farmed meat remains expensive to produce, complicated to scale, and ethically controversial.
Scientists also question its environmental benefits. A 2019 study from the University of Oxford found that farmed meat releases more greenhouse gases than conventional farming in some scenarios.
Research published last year yielded more positive conclusions. CE Delft analysts found that renewable energy could enable cultured meat to compete cost-effectively with conventional meat production by 2030 – leaving a lower carbon footprint. Critics, however called the predictions unrealistic.
The field also has strong rivals. The value of the global meat sector was estimated at $897 billion in 2021 and expected to be $1.354 billion in 2027. Industry’s farmers and lobbyists have a lot to lose in transitioning to lab-grown meat.
These challenges may not be insurmountable. Public opinion can be influenced; larger bioreactors, cheaper nutrients and increased cell densities can result in efficiency peaks.
Luining is confident that Meatable will sell a cost-competitive product by 2025. Ultimately, he envisions consumers mixing conventional, farmed and plant-based meats.
He makes another surreal appeal to my vegetarian diet. “You could eat a steak while the cow the cells are made of sits next to you and lives happily.”
Luining ends our conversation with a question: would I eat his cultured meat??
If the cow next to me has nothing to do with it – why not?