On Saturday December 19th, 2020, in a major leap for humankind, something important took place at a Singaporean events establishment called 1880. This was the first time cell cultured meat was approved for consumers and sold to the public, thanks to Eat Just producer of the plant-based brand JUST Egg.
“This historic step, the first-ever commercial sale of cultured meat, moves us closer to a world where the majority of meat we eat will not require tearing down a single forest, displacing a single animal’s habitat or using a single drop of antibiotics,” said Josh Tetrick, proud founder of Eat Just.
How is it made?
For those unfamiliar with how cell cultured meat is produced, the process involves taking a small sample from an animal. Everything after that takes place in a laboratory.
According to Ethica Meat, a brand of the Spanish company Biotech Foods which produces and distributes cell cultured meat, “we extract a sample of tissue by biopsy, without causing any damage and avoiding its [the animal’s] sacrifice. Once the sample is extracted, and due to the innocuity of the process, the animal returns to its daily life.
“A fat-free muscle mass is obtained if we so choose, without the need to have sacrificed any animal.”
“That sample of meat has in its composition muscle tissue, veins, fat, blood… among other elements. Thanks to the different biomedical techniques that exist today, we can isolate the cells that we want, so in this case, we will choose the proteins that those cells could provide us, isolating the muscle cells for our mission. This process is done in a very short space of time, so those extracted tissues are still alive.
“This sample is located in a controlled environment of humidity and temperature, so it continues to form tissue through a natural process of cell proliferation, which means that we are going to put these cells in an aqueous environment that has proteins, amino acids, mineral salts and air, among other elements so that they continue to grow and do their function, which is making muscle tissue full of proteins.
“As a result, if they are then placed in a type of fermenter or bioreactor that simulates the animal’s body, a fat-free muscle mass is obtained if we so choose, without the need to have sacrificed any animal.
“A type of meat that respects animal welfare, reduces the consumption of natural resources and has no exposure to pandemics, given that the animals we use to extract the samples are in perfect health and throughout the process have no exposure to viruses or bacteria.”
There is no doubt plantbased meat analogues have had great success themselves, without the need for any animal parts. However, for the most stubborn meat lover (a significant portion of the general meat-eating population on Earth) meat substitutes just don’t make the cut, while cultured meat just very well may.
“Shifting meat production to these sustainable and humane methods is critical to avoid the huge external costs of industrial animal agriculture,” Bruce Friedrich, GFI.
In a recent study carried out by the University of Bath, 44% of French and 58% of Germans said they are willing to try cell cultured meat, while an earlier study by the Good Food Institute showed that 66% of Americans are ready to try clean meat.
Producing meat without harming an animal. The experts chime in.
“Cultivated meat gives consumers everything they love about meat, but produced in a more sustainable and humane way, where animals are removed from the process entirely. This means there is no contribution to pandemic risk or antibiotic resistance, and a fraction of the adverse climate impact,” The Good Food Institute Executive Director Bruce Friedrich told vegconomist.
“Shifting meat production to these sustainable and humane methods is critical to avoid the huge external costs of industrial animal agriculture. To stand a chance of meeting the climate targets under the Paris Agreement and mitigating the next pandemic, governments must invest in the open-access research we need to bring cultivated meat to market at scale and make it accessible and affordable for all consumers,” he concluded.
“A small biopsy from skin tissue or hair follicle is certainly a place where you can get those cells,” Frea Mehta, Bluu Biosciences.
Some ethical vegans may feel uneasy about the fact that this kind of meat still requires animals for the production of food, and others are suspicious that animals may still be harmed in the process.
To get some more insights, vegconomist caught up with Frea Mehta, a top scientist for Bluu Biosciences, the first cell cultured seafood company in Europe, to ask her more about the process of extracting cells from living animals.
In her own words: “I think it’s a great question actually, where do you actually source these cells from? I think it’s really highly dependent on what you have access to as a company or as a researcher in the space, and what you’re interested in producing because the cells that you get from different parts of the body are going to have different properties that you can leverage in different ways for different applications.
“Indeed, the ideal would be the least invasive cell biopsy procedure imaginable. This would be a very small biopsy from something superficial like skin or a follicle of hair. I think these are absolutely sources of cells that exist in the research and industrial space for cell-cultured meat.
I think it really is highly dependent and highly variable across the entire space. Theoretically, absolutely a small biopsy from skin tissue or hair follicle is certainly a place where you can get those cells.”
Eric Jenkusky, CEO and Cofounder of Matrix Meats, which develops and manufactures nanofiber scaffolds to support the production of clean meat, said in a recent webinar that “even if you take away environmental concerns, and you take away animal rights, if you look at the slaughtered meat industry, strictly from a business sense, and if you were asked to design a new way to deliver meat, would it look like the way our slaughtered meat is today?
I would dare say, you would never design the system that we have today, because it’s this multi-century system with compounding issues that were built on top of each other, and you would never ever develop a system like this.
“It also is fantastic that we do get to positively affect climate change, and animal rights, et cetera, by doing that. I think this is probably the first time in history where people are actually building systems, taking into account those other factors, where we didn’t in the past. Now, we’re finally doing it, and we have the technology to do it. That’s what’s really, really exciting about this industry.”
The Future of Cell Cultured Meat
There is no doubt the food market is shifting in this direction. To drive this point home, 2020 was a record year, not only for cell cultured meat company launches, but also for private investments in this sector. The following are some stats provided by The Good Food Institute.
- 23 new cell cultured meat companies launched for a total of 76 companies globally—up 43% from 2019.
- Cell cultured meat companies received more than $360 million in investments in 2020, which is six times the amount raised in 2019 and 72 percent of the amount raised in the industry’s history (2016–2020).
But, as the GFI has stated, “cultured meat will remain just a fraction of the overall market for conventional meat unless governments fund basic R&D as they’ve done for other climate-friendly innovations.”
For comparison, renewable energy technology receives over $30 billion worth of global public investments for R&D every year, while total R&D funding into alternative proteins all-time amounts to about $1 billion, most of which has only been into the private sector.
Considering the fact that the conventional meat industry contributes 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, consumes 55 trillion gallons of water annually (520 times more than fracking at a time when climate change is already making droughts more pervasive) and takes up approximately 45% of the Earth’s habitable land surface, not to mention the relentless cruelty this system has bestowed upon the animal kingdom, it’s time for food companies, consumers, investors and most importantly, governments to embrace this wave of change.