Lab-grown meat: the future of food?
Being promoted as a sustainable protein of the future, but can enough lab-grown meat be made to feed the world? The FT's Emiko Terazono and Mercedes Ruehl investigate the progress so far
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At London's James Street the restaurants are full of diners enjoying meats of all kinds. But I've come here to learn more about lab-grown or cultured meat, and the role it could play in combatting global warming. I'm meeting the Good Food Institute's Seren Kell. Why are people making it in the first place?
Fundamentally, it comes down kind of two big issues, public health and climate change. 14.8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from an animal agriculture. And then from the public health perspective, because of the way our animal industry has developed over the previous decades, where because we have more and more mouths to feed, it is far more intensified.
The companies who are growing these animals systematically are prescribing antibiotics. And now feeding all these antibiotics to animals really encourages antimicrobial resistance. And it's just a public health crisis in the making.
But what is wrong with current farming that they can't fix?
We can't have all of our land taken up by the kind of sustainable, organic farming that people think we should be moving towards. There simply isn't enough land.
So just what's involved in taking farming out of the fields and into the lab? My first lab visit is in Old Street. But at Hoxton Farms they're not focused on actually creating artificial meat, rather one of its key ingredients. Hi it's Emiko from The Financial Times.
This is our food lab, where we use robotic equipment to work out the way to make the juiciest fat cells that we can.
Here, they think fat, which they create by combining cell biology and mathematical modelling, is magic. So why animal fat?
It defines the way that meat looks, and cooks, and tastes. The sizzle, and the smell, the way it browns. In meat alternatives there are plant oils, and they're really unsustainable. As well as caring about the climate, and caring about animal ethics, I really care about food. There's a world where we can safeguard the climate without endangering the recipes that we've loved, or changing the way that people eat.
But now, I want to see where they are actually making meat in a lab. At start-up, Higher Steaks, in Cambridge, they create meat by cultivating sample animal cells. How do you get an animal cell to grow? What do you feed it?
So we feed it something called the media, which is a liquid full of sugars, amino acids, vitamins, and everything that you need to help it grow. But also in the cells that we're using, then turning it into muscle, fat, and all the different tissues that you need to recreate meat. Higher Steaks is concentrating its efforts on producing lab-grown pork, because it's the most widely-consumed meat in the world.
The company won't reveal the cost of the process, but admits the key challenge is scaling up output. This is a one litre bioreactor, how easy is it to upscale this?
It's going to be challenging. We have the whole issues of how do you grow cells in a much larger vessel. Not just tens of litres, but thousands, and maybe tens of thousands of litres. With this sort of scale you can put them into centrifuge, and just spin cells down and go on. But to do that at tens and tens of thousands of litres scales, it's not economic. It's very technically challenging.
Last year Higher Steaks produced the world's first lab-grown bacon and pork belly. These pieces they've prepared took about three weeks to create. You're still developing this product, so I can't taste it. But I'm just going to have a sniff. It smells like pork. It's got a bit of a gingery, soy smell, but it's definitely, it looks like pork. And it smells like pork.
So these are some of our pork belly prototypes. So those prototypes, we take the cells from where you've seen, so the muscle and the fat, that we then mix with some plant-based proteins to create those delicious pork belly. And soon you'll be able to taste them as well.
It's frustrating that I can't taste it now. But it's legal to sell lab-grown meat in Singapore. So I've set up a video call with my FT colleague Mercedes Ruehl, and Chef Kaimana Chee from start-up Eat Just.
I'm here today to try some cultured meat dishes with Kaimana. And he's going to walk us through what we have.
Yeah so we have a cultured chicken salad with a little mandarin vinaigrette.
Are you going to try it for us, and tell us what it tastes like?
That's good. It's easier to chew than the regular, I would say than regular chicken.
A bit softer.
Oh OK. But it's a meaty texture is it?
Yeah. Yeah I would eat it.
So it seems lab-grown meat can be edible and tasty. Of course, production is still on a tiny scale, but if it could replace some of our traditional meat supplies, what impact could it have? I've come to Oxford University to meet John Lynch, whose research focuses on the climate effects of meat and dairy production. So we've been hearing a lot about lab-grown meat. Does it have any role in solving our environmental climate issues?
We could simply eat less meat without replacing some of it with something. But the question is, is that realistic to expect that level of dietary change? And obviously we have lentils for decades, millennia, we still have been consuming meat. So is it that cultured meat, is that an easier shift for the average consumer to make? But I don't think that there is a single silver bullet solution if you want.
My final stop is back at James Street in London. At Homeslice, pizzas are the staple dish. But I'm keen to share a vegan plant-based burger with meat-centric chef Neil Rankin. So I think I'm going to try it.
OK I'll go too
Here goes. So the mouthfeel is like meat.
Is like a burger. If I weren't told, I wouldn't know. So Neil, I'm investigating lab-grown meat.
Is that something that you would cook with?
From a culinary level, I just I'm like, this food, we've got food, we've got abundance of it. We're throwing out food every single day. I want to use that to cook something nice. I can do that, I don't need to use that yet.
But do I think it's important, yeah, I do. We need to be focusing on that because that could be the thing that saves a lot of communities that can't grow food. We're going to have soil degradation problems in the future. So should they be doing it, yes. Do we need it now, absolutely not.
So even though we can make meat in a lab, it's going to be a long time before it will have any real influence on our eating habits. And even then, it will most likely just be one small piece of a broader strategy to reduce meat's environmental impact.