Agriculture 2.0

10,000 years of farming practice[1] could be left in the dust by the incredible speed of development of not only faux meats but also by what has been labelled as ‘cruelty-free’ meat grown in a lab. The development of lab-grown meat is aimed at meat eaters, but also have the possibility of attracting vegetarians and vegans back to meat-eating. Cited as ‘meat with a conscience’, this industry is keen to work with the meat market to prepare for the future of how we consume meat in an expanding world.

Alongside many jobs in the 21st century, farmers have had to move along with the times and recognise where demand is, forging relationships with the ‘middleman’ such as supermarkets, as well as learn techniques for sustainable, environmentally-friendly farming. The threat of a new meat market to many farmers brings the fear of potentially putting many farmers out of work. Further clarity needs to be identified to see how farmers will be affected as a result of these new meat producing strategies.

Animal cells can be grown in lab conditions to create meat products.
A view of Maastricht where the first lab-grown meat was created.

One of the companies at the forefront of cell-cultured meat movement, Mosa Meats based in the Netherlands, suggests that farmers could change to provide feed for the cells which are harvested[2]. They also state that it will also be a long time before this type of meat could compete with the output of farmers at the moment.

The question is do we look to the future and embrace this new way to consume meat or should we hark back to older times and welcome a meat tax and ration this luxury product? We are told time and time again that we should buy better quality meat, and less of it but with supermarkets and fast-food chains continuously offering deals on cheap meat how can a change in mindset towards meat ever happen? Buying meat from a reputable source such as your local butcher or nearby farm with accreditation should be part of the answer to improve our diets.

Drones can be used to eliminate weeds in crops
Drones can be used to eliminate weeds in crops

As Northumberland and Scottish Borders towns are surrounded by beautiful countryside and farms, it should be attainable to source locally-reared, healthy meat easily. Farms such as Peelham Farm, Hardiesmill and Hexhamshire Organics offer top quality red meat products, including rare-breed Tamworth pork, Scotch Beef and organic beef, which can be purchased directly from them to ensure quality, freshness and sustainability.

If you don’t love it, don’t eat it, and if you love it, savour it.
Evelyn Tribole

Lab-Grown Meat: What is it?

As a basic principle, it is meat grown in a lab, rather than farm-reared.

Animal cells can be grown in lab conditions to create meat products.
Animal cells can be grown in lab conditions to create meat products.

Cells are extracted by performing a biopsy on an animal under anaesthesia. These cells are known as Myosatellite cells which come from the stem cells of the muscle which are capable of self-renewal and regeneration[3]. The cells are placed in an environment where they are nutritionally catered for so they can multiply and grow. Eventually, these begin to resemble meat-like structures as the cell structure is built-up from muscle tissue[4].

The concept has arisen from the escalation of environmental worries. Lab-grown meat advocates believe that this is a sustainable way to consume meat. Growing cells in the lab also reduces land mass necessary for rearing animals, eliminates the cost of food and water for animals while also aiming to improve the treatment and condition of farmed animals.

With a greater knowledge of what are called hormones, i.e. the chemical messengers in our blood, it will be possible to control growth. We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.
Winston Churchill predicting the future in 1931.

This branch of life science, a fusion of biochemistry and biotechnology, is associated with effective altruism, a philosophical system where the focus is finding the most effective solution to make the world a better place[5]. However, the problem is, is that this social movement is dominated by a group of white, male workers in well-paid jobs in the technology industry ranging from computer science to biotechnology. The men and women in these jobs are not necessarily people who have had first-hand experience in the agricultural sector. It can be easy to judge systems which appear to not work productively without actually seeing the restraints that certain jobs have to adhere to.

The lab-grown meat industry’s top players include:

Finless Foods, California

Finless Foods mission is to transform the fishing industry and provide a sustainable way to eat fish. Fish cells are grown using cellular-agriculture technologies. They have started producing bluefin tuna, one of the ‘Big 5’ consumed fish globally. The aim is to produce fish products which aren’t contaminated with outside environmental factors such as metal and plastic content as well as ensuring overfishing in the seas does not continue at its current rate.

Just, INC (previously Hampton Creek Foods), California

This company began in 2015 with a vision to make food available for all[6]. So far Just, INC has focussed on plant-based foods such as vegan mayo and as a white-label supplier to corporations. At its base is a biotech company where it has been discovering the ‘molecular secrets of the world’s 353,000 plant species’[6]. Since 2018, Just INC has been in the process of making lab-grown meat a reality to change the view of how we consume not only dairy products, but meat too.

Mosa Meats – Maastricht, Netherlands

Professor Post of Maastricht Uni unveils world's first cell-cultured hamburger.
Professor Post of Maastricht Uni unveils world’s first cell-cultured hamburger.

Mosa Meats revealed the world’s first hamburger grown from cow cells in 2013. This burger cost $300,000 to create. Mosa Meats states that by ‘2050, global meat demand will be 70% higher than today’s level’[7]. Lab-grown meat, they suggest, is better for our health, the environment and prioritises animal welfare.

Memphis Meats, California

Memphis Meats sees itself as a farm on a tiny scale cultivating animal cells into meat portions. The aim is to create an environmentally-friendly way to produce meat i.e. reducing greenhouse gasses. They are the first company to create the world’s first cell-based meatball in 2016 and the world’s first cell-based poultry in 2017. The company receives funding from notable philanthropists and businessmen Richard Branson and Bill Gates.

SuperMeat – Tel Aviv

SuperMeat is powered by the meat industry and pharmaceutical companies to bring meat to the next level. SuperMeat currently focuses on producing cell-cultured chicken products and have recently signed a trade deal with China to export its lab-grown chicken for a whopping $300,000,000[8]. SuperMeat have also benefitted from recent invested from PHW group, a large poultry company based in Germany[9].

Animal cells can be grown in lab conditions to create meat products.
SuperMeat have focused on processed chicken meat to create products such as chicken nuggets.

New Harvest, New York

New Harvest has been at the forefront of ‘farming cells instead of animals’ since 2004. By practising what they call ‘cellular agriculture’, New Harvest envisions changing the way we consume animal products. It is entirely supported by donors and looks to assist independent research on the creation of cell-cultured meat and animal by-products such as leather.

The Ethics of Meat

Food is a political issue. Whether we like it or not, the choices we make about our food leave us open to judgement to others. It is likely this is just a phenomenon which has altered our attitudes and relationship with food. The rise of fast food, eating-on-the-go, ready meals and the expansion of global trading has provided so much choice that whatever you decide impacts who you are as a person. It reflects your values, your health, your emotive persona, your culture as well the need to survive.

Eating and enjoying meat has become the ultimate taboo of the food world. Over the past decade, we’ve been enlightened to the organic movement, the rise of veganism, real bread campaign and mindfulness in terms of sustainability and healthy eating and the sugar tax. It appears next on the list is meat. Despite this, food legislation has also changed across the world. For instance, in France, it is against the law to label faux meats as mince, bacon or sausages to create transparency to customers[11]. In the USA, a similar outcry is resounding by beef producers across the country, especially in high-consuming beef states such as Texas. Some have suggested cutting red meat and replace it with white meat, but chicken living standards, globally, could be considerably worse than that of a cow.

Opting out of the industrial food system is probably the best bet for those who still want to consume meat and enjoy it. No-one should have to feel bad about their diet choices, especially when it is a balanced diet.

Animal protein is a fantastic source of protein and minerals. Meat’s health properties are believed to be more easily digested and incorporated throughout the body. If meat matters to you, the best thing you can do is to source the best quality you can. Trustworthy butchers and sourcing straight from the farm are the best ways to buy meat if you want transparency about the food you eat. After all, you are what you eat.

Lab-grown meat has many obstacles to overcome including the cost, taste and general concerns of the public. As a result of the influx of companies over the past 5 years, the media interest and increase the likelihood of lab-grown meat being available to the public before this decade is out. Only now are food regulatory departments such as the FDA are considering ways how they can regulate how lab-grown meat is produced.

The burger is one of the world's most desirable foods across all colours, creeds and classes.
The burger is one of the world’s most desirable foods across all colours, creeds and classes.

Unfortunately, most of this kind of meat is actually being constructed to make notoriously unhealthy foods such as chicken nuggets, burgers and meatballs. These meat-based dishes are already fetishised beyond belief as an attainable hit of weekly, if not daily, satisfaction. This even includes faux meats such as the new vegetarian bleeding burger which has caused such a fuss for the past month. It is these types of processed foods which are damaging our health, contributing to greenhouse gases and poor diet choices rather than the actual eating of meat in its ‘real’ form.

It is this style of eating which has brought shame upon animal husbandry and the needs for mass-farming principles such as using hormones, antibiotics, deforestation and unethical practice as demand for processed meat has risen substantially over the past 40-50 years.

As this is still new phenomena, the beneficial statistics that claim that lab-grown meat is better in a plethora of ways cannot be verified until it is put into practice.

I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone. One day we will look back and think how archaic our grandparents were in killing animals for food.
Richard Branson

Clean Meat?

Changing the way we eat and view food is going to dominate our lives for possibly the next 30 years. Suggestions have been made to cut down on our meat consumption. This is attainable, the government just needs to prioritise funding for this especially as Brexit looms and fear-mongering about our capabilities to feed the country sustainably looks doubtful. The problem with these new fads is that they bring a new vision to determine the future of eating whilst perpetuating our current ways of eating. Burgers, regardless if they are made of beef, farmed or lab-grown, or soya, they are still promoting a fast-food, unhealthy and processed diet which we should be trying to avoid.

Potential consumers, us the public, are dubious about this way of cultivating meat. However, if the food industry was to take responsibility and support farmers, reduce the use of pesticides and change the status quo of how we view and value food, this could potentially spark the food revolution we are looking for. The question to ask is can various experiments in the lab to develop ‘fake’ or ‘real’ meats be the answer to the current meat crisis? Should we not instead, buy and support local meat producers and thus eat less or make the meat go further?

This food trend does, however, have the power to encourage people to check out where their food comes from and how it was farmed. This is relevant to all the foods we eat, meat, fish, vegetables and grains.

What are your thoughts on lab-grown meat? Would you try it? Join the conversation on social media. Follow Foodful on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.