We all love meat when we gather around barbecues and at the dinner table. But if someone would have said a few years ago that the beef steak or the burger we are eating is developed in a laboratory, it would sound like science fiction.
Food critics first tried a lab-grown burger in 2013, and the entire world watched. The tiny pink patty was used as evidence that it was feasible to generate safe and palatable meat without butchering any animals. It was taken out of a petri dish and cooked in front of the press. There was only one issue: it had cost more than $300,000 and two years to manufacture the patties. But prices for making this high-tech steak have dropped since then. In 2016, Memphis Meat developed their first lab-grown beef meatball for approximately $1,000. Now, several startups and non-profit organizations have invested in developing various other meats and animal products like chicken, pig, milk, egg whites, fish, and even leather which will completely be grown in labs.
First, what is cultured or lab-grown meat, and what is the process of making cultured meat? Cultured meats are real meat grown directly from the cells of animals. These are not the same as the vegan, vegetarian, or plant-based meat already available in supermarkets. In simple terms, cultivated meat is similar to brewing beer where yeast or microbes are grown — the only difference is that cells of real livestock are grown in a sterile and controlled environment. Scientists begin the process by taking small cell samples from livestock (without needing to kill the animal) and identifying the best cells which can multiply. Mosa Meat, a food technology company from The Netherlands, claims that by just taking small-sized sample of cells, they can grow beef in their labs and from that one cell sample, 80,000 burger beef patties can be produced.
In Singapore, a restaurant named 1880 served the lab-grown meat and became one of the first restaurants to sell this meat commercially. The company GOOD Meat created the cultured meat. Approved by the Singapore Food Standard Agency in December 2020, the cultured meat was sold commercially by GOOD Meat, the first in the world to do so. An 11-year-old boy sat at the first table to serve cultured meat by the GOOD Meat brand in Singapore on December 19, 2020. Collin Buchan, the head chef of 1880, had the pleasure to serve the first cultured chicken grown in a lab by GOOD Meat.
The Dutch government has decided to invest 60 million euros in cellular agriculture which is the largest investment by any government. This has excited the companies involved in the business and can help form an ecosystem around cellular agriculture. The suggestion was made by the recently established group Cellular Agriculture Netherlands, of which Mosa Meat is a founding member. Academia, NGOs, start-ups, and other key actors in the business are among the member organizations.
In UAE, plant-based meats are readily available in supermarkets and fast-food restaurants through companies like Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat. But cellular meat can change the market and allow diners in UAE to enjoy real meat grown in a lab from the cells of animals. Israel-based start-up company Aleph Farms is now in talks to produce lab-grown beef steaks in Dubai. If all goes to plan, Dubai residents would be able to enjoy a lab-grown beef burger made right here in Dubai. While most labs make minced meat, Aleph Farms would like to develop muscles, opening the door to the possibilities of steaks, lamb shanks and more cultivated meats grown in the Emirates. This future food development is possible through 3D bioprinting technology. Soon after the launch of this cultured meat in UAE, we may see several fast-food chains and steak houses adopt the future of meat to boost sales and increase profits. Lab-grown meat may become more affordable in the future compared to traditional meat, as well as also being potentially more sustainable and healthier.
The big question that comes to mind when thinking of cellular meat: is it really healthy and safe to eat cultured meat? Is it sustainable; does it really help combat climate change and save the environment? To answer that, companies like GOOD Meat, Mosa Meat and Aleph Farms refer to cultured meat "the future of meat" and seek to prove on their platforms that cultured meat is much healthier to eat than traditional meat. Their justification is that it comes from animals and developed in a sterile environment. Scientists can collect sample cells from the healthiest animals to reduce transmission of various diseases spread by animals. Billions of animals are slaughtered for consumption worldwide and with an increase in population, this food technology can help fight the associated environmental challenges and also save the lives of animals. Cultivated meat could reduce animal killing, in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide and methane, which are the main causes of climate change. Twenty-five percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions are related to the food system, primarily from animal agriculture.
The industry is only around 10 years old and still a few years away from being commercially available on a large scale in various countries. Until then, the benefits of produced meat for the health of animals, people and the environment are more hope than a promise.
Rochak Khandelwal is a research scholar with the HFTP Middle East Research Center and student at the Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management in Dubai, UAE.