Paging from the future… As Jenny Kleeman, author of Sex Robots & Vegan Meat writes, it’s the “stuff of science fiction”. “Flesh without the blood, meat without murder, and the beginning of the end of the environmental damage caused by intensive animal agriculture.” Cell-based meat—as in, real meat, grown from cells of a real animal—is on the menu. It’s a vision that’s been 90 years in the making, and now humankind has to grapple with this reality. Let’s break it down…
Once upon a time, a long time ago…
In a 1931 essay, Winston Churchill imagined a world where “we shall 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.” He pursued this vision for decades, with a Dutch researcher and entrepreneur by the name of Willem van Eelen, who’s known as the “godfather of cultured meat”, because he made it his life’s mission to realise the promise of safe, sustainable meat production from cells.
Fast forward to 2015 and van Eelen has passed on, but the vision has not. A food-tech startup called Eat Just acquires patents, with van Eelen’s daughter, Ira van Eelen, becoming a friend and adviser to the company. Eat Just begins their work on cell-based meat (also referred to as lab-grown or cultured meat) in 2017, along with a slew of other startups and companies. Fast forward again to 2020, and the vision becomes reality. In the small city-state of Singapore, cell-based meat makes its official world debut to an inaugural table of customers, including “a group of inspiring young people committed to building a better planet”.
The stuff of science fiction has become real. And certainly one could say this is somewhat of a revolution. But what now? How is it made? Is it as good as it seems? Will it save the planet? To answer these questions, we need to take a closer look…
The grand debut
Eat Just is one of many food-tech hopefuls on the verge of the alternative meat revolution, and this is, we stress, not a sponsored post. It just happened to be that Eat Just was the startup that made history, serving up cell-based meat for the first time ever, in the world, in a restaurant in Singapore, late last year. And actually, to be a bit more specific, the brand that launched the product is called GOOD Meat, which is a new brand from Eat Just. Sounds familiar? You might know Eat Just from their famous—and expensive—vegan, plant-based egg-alternative. It comes out of bottles and not eggshells.
Back to the story. Now, cell-based meat has been in the works for a while now (more on that later), but the reason why it only just debuted is that the approval process, thankfully, takes forever. In fact, it took two years for the Singapore Food Agency to approve the product. According to the regulators, they looked at product composition, manufacturing process, nutritional aspects, quality, safety, etc. And, of course, the cell-based meat passed all the tests.
But what exactly is it, you ask? There are many kinds of cell-based meats, but this one that debuted is cultured chicken, manufactured in Singapore’s Food Innovation and Resource Centre. It takes the form of chicken bites, kind of like chicken nuggets. 70% of it is made of cultured chicken cells, and another major ingredient is a mung bean protein, the same that’s used in Eat Just’s JUST Egg.
So… it’s not vegan?
Here’s the thing: it’s technically still meat. These chicken cells are cultured, a manufacturing process that takes a few weeks, after obtaining the cells from an “established and validated chicken cell bank”. Sounds a lot like sci-fi, doesn’t it? Anyway, here’s what the manufacturing process looks like: the startup took a biopsy of cells from a living chicken, bathed them in a nutrient medium and grew them in a bioreactor until they were ready to be harvested. Then, it becomes just like meat, covered with batter and lo and behold: nuggets.
So no, it’s not vegan, since it’s made of animal cells. And that “nutrient medium”? Not vegan either. It’s called fetal bovine serum (FBS) and is about as un-vegan as it sounds. It’s a serum made from the blood of a dead calf, requiring the slaughter of a pregnant cow. To be fair, it is the most widely-used medium and is considered the best one for growing cells. With this process, overall, fewer animals will be required compared to regular animal agriculture, but you still need dead cows.
According to Eat Just, the cell-based meat is “produced with a very low level of bovine serum”, which is “effectively removed through the harvesting and washing procedure”. And they’re also working on a plant-based, cruelty-free version, but that’s “pending regulatory review”. In other words, plant-based cell-based meat is coming soon.
If it’s beginning to sound a little problematic to you, sit tight because we’ll get to it. But for now, let’s acknowledge one thing…
How it started: How it's going: pic.twitter.com/sbZhlCgs6s
— Michal Klar (@michalklar) December 2, 2020
Major progress has been made…
And it would be silly to deny it. It’s a big breakthrough for science and in the fight against industrial agriculture. According to a Singaporean food writer, it does taste like a (softer) nugget. “If I closed my eyes,” she wrote, “I don’t think I can tell the difference between the cell-based meat and real meat.” And it’s not just about the taste, it’s also about cost. While we don’t know how much it takes to produce the cell-based meat, it’s come a long way.
In 2013, Mark Post and his team presented the world’s first-ever cell-based burger (not for public consumption). They reportedly spent $330,000 on the project. Last year, Eat Just said that one chicken nugget costs US$50 to make. And for this most recent launch, the chicken course, consisting of a few nuggets, cost around US$18. The startup said it wasn’t making any money on these first sales, but that’s still an impressive increase in affordability over just seven years. And if it’s cut to a fraction of its price in this time, imagine how competitively priced it could be given a few more years of development, production, and distribution?
But, again, before we get too carried away, let’s weigh the balance. Such a breakthrough merits, at the very least, a discussion of whether or not this “alternative meat” lives up to its promises. And does it?
“The good stuff about meat, without the bad”?
Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of Eat Just, claims that with cell-based meat, “you get the good stuff about meat, without the bad. It’s a way of eating meat without killing an animal, without tearing down a single tree, without using a single drop of antibiotics, without negatively impacting biodiversity, without accelerating zoonotic disease.” To understand what Tetrick is talking about, we need to briefly touch on what lab-grown meat is up against: industrial agriculture.
Industrial agriculture brings with it a slew of issues, environmental and ethical. Most of us already know this: its inhumane living conditions for animals involved. Their lives are brutal—in all senses of the word—cut short and they are injected with all sorts of antibiotics and hormones so that they grow artificially large, for human consumption. Then you have the environmental issues: animal agriculture is the third greatest contributor to global warming. Operations involved in industrial agriculture release a lot of methane, and grazing animals contribute to around 40% of global methane emissions. And to top it all off? The Big Ag industrial complex is steeped in racial injustice. The fact that this is a non-exhaustive list should scare you. We didn’t even mention the links to the raging pandemic.
So if industrial agriculture is the Big Bad Guy, is cell-based meat better?
Let’s start with climate change. Recent research has shown that for some types of animal protein, cell-based meat is significantly better. This is the case for beef, whereby the emissions drop by 80-95%. But for pork and poultry, emissions are nearly the same. It comes down to the production facilities involved: because producing cell-based meat requires quite a bit of electricity, it chalks up a carbon footprint there. This can be mitigated with renewable energy sources, however, and along with that, “the climate impact of cultured meat can be substantially lower compared to conventionally produced meat.” Another aspect to consider is this: what is cell-based meat replacing? If it’s replacing actual meat, it could be beneficial. But if it’s replacing a vegetarian meal, naturally, it’s going to be worse. In short, the answer here is: “better, but…”
And what about ethics? For the most part, cell-based meat is slaughter-free. But as we mentioned above, the FBS is quite a big red flag. Not to mention, cell-based meat is still meat, and so vegan folks who are vegan for the animals may not find that it’ll ever be up their alley. And there are other issues. Other benefits of lab-grown meat touted include health and safety benefits (see: pandemic risk) and cutting down on the need for massive amounts of water, land, fertiliser and other inputs involved in industrial agriculture. But these are disputed.
Unsurprisingly, some have their doubts. Jenny Kleeman writes that it’s “eye-catching technology”, but also “an over-engineered solution to a problem we can solve by changing our diets.” She adds that “giant meat producers such as Cargill and Tyson are already investing heavily in cultured protein. Who knows which companies will run the industry in decades to come.”
Why not just abandon meat altogether?
Certainly, that’s the question that those like Kleeman would be asking. Elaine Siu, managing director of the Asia Pacific branch of the Good Food Institute, has this to say in response. “I think our theory of change is pretty simple, it’s to meet people where they are.” CEO Justin Tetrick would, of course, echo this sentiment. “Not everyone is going to care about mitigating climate change over their breakfast,” he says. And not everyone cares about going vegan.
Here’s how one journalist put it: “My answer is simple. Many humans – and let’s not forget that humans are animals too – value access to meat. Some like the taste of it. Some associate it with good times and with the people they love. It forms part of cultural or religious identities. These things are important – and they give us a reason to want meat to remain available in the future. This is not just pragmatic animal activism, it’s a recognition that meat, despite its problems, can be a good thing.
Let me not be misunderstood. I do not think that the value many people place in meat justifies the awful things that animal agriculture does to animals, to our planet and to our public health. Not at all. I am a vegan, and I think you should be too. But the importance that people place in meat matters enough for me to raise a loud cheer for the news from Singapore.”
We’ve just scratched the surface…
All this barely does justice to the discussion that needs to be had. And it is one that is ongoing.
We don’t have the answers, but if you’re asking for my personal opinion? I defer to Rachel Khoo, host of the podcast “A Carnivore’s Crisis”, who says this: “change doesn’t start and end with you and me at the supermarket. It requires big food companies to change the way they operate and supply the global food system. So perhaps the flurry of interest in lab-grown meat is a reason to be optimistic.” And of course, I would circle back to remind us that these startups could easily grow into a huge corporation that’s out there to earn profit rather than do good. But it’s too early to say, and we’ve got too many meat-eaters, as it stands, to convince. We need all hands on deck—or rather, all kinds of “alternative meats” on the shelves.
Which is to say, I’m ambivalent. Ultimately, it’s the same ambivalence, I think, I feel about products like Impossible meat. I’m happy to see it flourish and do more good, and I’m also waiting to see if it begins to chalk up ethical issues, or if it ends up being an exclusive alternative available only to those who can afford it. But I also know that in weighing the balance, it’s never going to be fair to pit folks who are trying to do good against the Big Ag industrial complex—which is, at the end of the day, what we’re up against.
Now, over to you—what’s your take?
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