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Lab-grown meat opens a door to consumers

When you think about meat-eating, you might think that a renowned animal welfare protection organisation wouldn’t be so keen.

PETA, or the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have been leading champions for animal rights and welfare since March 1980, founded by Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Pachecho. This non-profit organisation has 6.5 million members worldwide, and campaigns under the motto, “Animals are not ours to experiment on, eat, wear, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way.”

While the idea of meat-eating sounds like the antithesis to everything PETA stands for, there is one thing that the group is a strong advocate for – something which combines the world of science and the culinary arts. In-vitro meat could be a new way for consumers to avoid a massive change to their dietary habits, while safeguarding the welfare of animals.

A growing influence

The World Counts estimates that we consumed 346.14 million tonnes of meat globally in 2018 – the industry which helps fuel this demand is responsible for 14.5 per cent of the world’s emissions, according to the UN. Not only does the rearing of livestock pollute the planet – it also sees the slaughter of millions of animals per year.

In-vitro meat has the potential to spare billions of animals the cruelty of factory farming, the terror of transportation, and an agonising death in an abattoir. And unlike meat from those filthy places, its production doesn’t pollute rivers and streams, deplete groundwater resources, or cause deforestation.

– Elisa Allen, PETA UK Director

What if there was a way to continue eating meat, without having to slaughter any animals at all? In-vitro meat, or cultured meat, is one of the new ways that we could do so. Taking tissue samples from healthy animals, scientists can grow cells into an artificial form of meat, by allowing these cells to grow in a laboratory instead. One could say that such a process could be termed a form of cellular agriculture.

PETA is a great advocate of in-vitro meat creation for the following reasons, as PETA UK Director Elisa Allen explains: “In-vitro meat has the potential to spare billions of animals the cruelty of factory farming, the terror of transportation, and an agonising death in an abattoir. And unlike meat from those filthy places, its production doesn’t pollute rivers and streams, deplete groundwater resources, or cause deforestation.”

In-vitro meat creation is a new field in science, meaning the process is a costly way to produce a meaningful outcome at present. Elisa is optimistic that, in time, the development can advance to a point where a conveyor belt of live animal specimens are no longer required for constant tissue sampling.

She clarifies, saying: “It’s expected that in time, as with human tissue, there will be cell lines from cows and other animals that will end the need to use live animals, and researchers are working to develop chemical laboratory reagents that are not animal-derived.”

As such, cultured meat could eventually become a means of creating meat products as part of a self-sustained industry, where a rich supply of animal cell cultures could be called upon as part of a closed loop system, allowing animals bred for their meat to start living a life free from the confines of an abattoir or laboratory.

PETA aids research into in-vitro

PETA US, the US branch of the organisation, has made forays into the world of in-vitro meat research, claiming to have funded some of the first waves of research into it at two American universities. In the mid-2010s, PETA US proceeded to offer a $1 million prize to the laboratory which could pioneer the creation of the world’s first commercially-viable brand of chicken meat product.

“We’re delighted that the ‘clean meat’ movement has now become a burgeoning industry”, Elisa tells us, “that will spare animals’ lives, prevent untold suffering, safeguard the environment, and help feed people around the world.”
However, the move away from traditional eating habits doesn’t just mean waiting around for the next best innovation in the in-vitro world.

At present, a wide variety of vegan-friendly brands including Moving Mountains and the No Bull Burger on sale at frozen food retailer Iceland use concentrated sources of soya as a meat substitute. According to Elisa, “there’s no need to delay ditching meat from today’s disease-ridden, polluting factory farms. Diners can go vegan today.”

This is best evidenced on the official PETA website itself, as it doesn’t shy away from promoting a vegan-based diet plan, which consumers are welcome to dip into at any time.

The prospects of in-vitro meat

From a nutritional point of view, there’s much to love about making the switch from conventional meat to cultured or clean meat. “In vitro meat already tends to have less fat than farmed animal flesh”, Elisa claims. This is because the tissues used for creating it are typically confined to one type of cell – muscle tissue is distinct from a collection of fat cells.

No matter how hard you try, creating fat using muscle tissue is virtually impossible, but a lower fat cultured meat product isn’t all that bad. The only difference is the cooking process – naturally-occurring fats and oils create that distinctive smell and taste, which is absent from cultured meat. The result of this is that in-vitro meat offers a leaner meal.

Elisa quotes Dr Mark Post from the University of Maastricht, a scientist responsible for the world’s first in-vitro burger, who said, “We gain greater control over what the meat consists of, for example its fat content.”
One of the innovations in the creation of clean meat, according to Elisa, is the idea that nutritionists could potentially find ways of implanting nutrients into these lab-grown products, which wouldn’t occur in nature.

For example, they could fortify cultured meats with additional iron and vitamin B12, vital nutrients which help you maintain a healthier bloodstream. Not only could in-vitro meat be cruelty-free from an animal welfare perspective, but also a far healthier alternative to the traditional beef burger.

We reached out to Dr Post, to ask more about his work in creating the world’s first lab-grown hamburger. Mosa Meat, a company he co-founded in 2015, which is at the leading edge of in-vitro meat production, responded, saying: “Mark was driven to make cultured meat for environment, food security, and animal welfare reasons. Making beef in this way, as you know, does not require the slaughtering of animals and uses far less land and water, and is predicted to use far less greenhouse gas emissions.”

Mosa Meat added that one of the ways in-vitro meat could become more authentic was by using the following method: “At Mosa Meat, we are focused on making minced beef. We are therefore culturing the fat and the muscle tissue separately, which we can grind together to make beef.”

The countdown to in-vitro going mainstream

As we reported before, in our piece about the future of meat, Singapore’s Food Agency had approved a US-based company, Eat Just, to start selling lab-grown ‘chicken-bites’, using cells derived from living chickens, which were then harvested and cultivated in bioreactors. Elisa admits that it could be some time before in-vitro products truly take off and achieve escape velocity as a popular choice for consumers.

Not only that, but as Elsa added, these products are costlier to produce. However, she clarifies, saying: “While prototypes might seem expensive at the moment, if the technology works, mass production will cause prices to plummet. When factoring in the environmental cost of today’s meat industry as well as the worrying threat of antibiotic-resistant pathogens that emerge through the over-use of antibiotics in animal agriculture, the price tag starts to shrink in comparison.”

It can be expensive to rear livestock, to maintain the overall health of the animals involved, ensure decent wellbeing for an adequate amount of time, and prevent them from being infected or contaminated by a whole manner of diseases. Clean meat could start to outcompete traditional farms with large numbers of animals reared solely for slaughter. It’s all just a matter of time before what starts as a trickle of demand to become a full-scale flood.

As the technology develops we are able to scale up our production and produce more meat for a lower cost, this is done in both the automation stage (e.g. swapping from making by hand to making by machines), and also by reducing the cost of our ingredients

– Mosa Meat

Intriguingly, an Israeli-based start-up, Aleph Farms, claims that it could start delivering lab-grown meat products which could reach cost-parity with conventional meat at a faster pace than plant-based alternatives, with a ramping up of activity making this a possibility from 2024 onwards.

Mosa Meat gave us an insight into precisely how in-vitro meat could become far more affordable, in the following ways: “As the technology develops we are able to scale up our production and produce more meat for a lower cost, this is done in both the automation stage (e.g. swapping from making by hand to making by machines), and also by reducing the cost of our ingredients (e.g. the medium, which reduced by 88 times last year).”

Many may wonder – who is in-vitro meat targeted at? If you’re vegetarian or vegan, it’s quite understandable that, if you were uncomfortable with the idea of eating animals before, you might remain reluctant to make a start, no matter what shape or form meat products of the future may take.

Elisa admits this truth, saying: “The thought of eating animal flesh turns the stomachs of many vegans and vegetarians, so it’s unlikely they will be the main consumers. In-vitro meat will, however, provide meat-eaters who want to protect animals and the environment with an ethical, eco-friendly, and safe way of consuming meat.”

In that sense, the idea of lab-grown flesh isn’t aimed at converting vegetarians and vegans back towards eating meat, but rather winning over hearts and minds away from traditional sources of meat in favour of more animal friendly ones. One could view it as a potential stepping stone – starting from meat, transitioning to cultured meat, before opening the door to the idea of plant-based alternatives, or perhaps switching to a vegetable-oriented diet entirely.

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