The meatless burger is surely one of the biggest food trends of 2019. The rising popularity of options like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods burgers come as scientists implore consumers to switch to a more plant-based diet to help tackle climate change.
But there’s another option lurking on the horizon: lab-grown meat. Or, as scientists prefer to call it, “cultured” or “clean” meat. It has the potential to be better for both the environment and your health.
Amy Rowat, associate professor of integrative biology and physiology at University of California, Los Angeles, is one of six scientists who received a grant earlier this year from the Good Food Institute in Washington, D.C., to further develop cultured meat.
Born and raised in Guelph, Ont., Rowat spent years studying cells and has years of academic experience in the science of food.
“All the food that we eat is made of cells,” Rowat said, so developing cultured meat was a natural fit. In the simplest terms, stem cells are taken from an animal’s muscle and put in a nutrient-rich broth, of sorts, to encourage them to multiply and grow into muscle fibres. So, it is real meat, but with one key difference: Animals don’t have to be raised or killed to produce it.
Rowat and her grad student, Stephanie Kawecki, determined that to produce one billion quarter-pounder burgers (113 grams each), it takes 1.2 million cows living for three years on 8,600 square kilometres of land (and then slaughtering them). The same number of cultured burgers would require the muscle stem cells of just one living cow, and they’d take only about a month and a half to grow.
Right now, those cultured burgers would be pricey. The first lab-grown burger was produced in a Netherlands lab in 2013 at a cost of about $425,000 Cdn, although Israeli company Future Meat Technologies said last year it could bring the cost down into the range of $3.00 to $6.00 Cdn a pound (453 kg) by 2020. Rowat believes cultured meat will eventually be on par cost-wise with organic beef.
Some believe it could be available in two to five years. But the pivotal question is: Will people eat it?
Lab-grown meat “is a foreign concept,” said Kara Nielsen, who analyzes food trends at CCD Innovation in Emeryville, Calif. But she sees a definite advantage. It will have the familiar taste and texture of farmed meat, and it’s a good alternative for people concerned with animal rights. “It certainly wins on you-didn’t-kill-a-cow-to-eat-this-burger,” she said.
Another plausible selling point: it could be healthier than farmed beef. “Imagine modifying genetically the cellular components so that they produce healthier molecules in your cultured meat,” said Rowat. For example, to make a lower-fat meat, or one with more healthy fat.
On the environmental front, if people move away from farmed beef, there would be less need to clear cut land to raise cattle, and less methane from those gassy cows.
A recent Oxford University study, however, highlights a potential hurdle. It found that the amount of heat and electricity required to produce cultured meat could be worse, environmentally, than some cattle farming, if energy systems remain dependent on fossil fuels.
The researchers suggested that to be more environmentally responsible, companies producing cultured meat would have to do something to mitigate carbon emissions. That could be crucial to cultured meat’s success.
Nielsen said the potential positives may be what push people past any feelings of strangeness about eating lab-grown meat.
“It could be that we’ll leapfrog to an acceptance … like, ‘You know what? I still want to eat my beef. And my beef just comes from a separate place.'” SOURCE