Currently working as a Junior Product Manager for Veganz, Europe’s largest purely plant-based food brand, Cosima Richardson is always on the lookout for innovative and sustainable food products.
Having completed an internship with Hospitality Digital in New York City, she obtained her Master’s degree in International Marketing Management. Upon her return to Berlin, Cosima worked as a marketing manager for an organic food start-up while writing her final thesis on potential target groups for cultured meat in Germany.
This is the second part of the article. The first part is available here.
Feature image: A burger made from cultured beef, which has been developed by Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands. David Parry/PA
How is cultured meat better than the “real” thing?
An obvious advantage of clean meat is that it minimizes animal suffering and can reduce or even put an end to the mass slaughter. Moreover, cultivating meat in labs rather than on the farms could be extremely beneficial for our environment: the first study on this subject done by Tuomisto & Texeira de Mattos in 2011 indicated that cultured meat production would require 99% less space, which might free up most of the farmland that currently used for livestock production or cultivation of animal feed.
These vacant areas could then be converted back to woodland or used to grow foodstuff. Moreover, producing clean meat could reduce water consumption and greenhouse gas emission by up to 96%.
In terms of energy consumption, CM doesn’t score quite as well, which can be attributed to the use of energy-intensive bioreactors. While growing poultry in the lab environment might require more energy than regular farming, cultivation of beef, sheep or pork would be significantly less energy-intensive. Production of cultured beef, in particular, holds the largest saving potential, as it might require 45% less energy.
Another promising factor is that cultured meat might reduce food-related health risks: conventional livestock production is known to contribute to the spreading of infectious pathogens like Salmonella and E. coli. Conventional meat often contains antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, fungicides, heavy metals, dioxins and even feces – the long list of things that none of us would eat voluntarily.
Producing cultured meat might solve this problem: since it is manufactured under controlled and sterile conditions, it will likely be free from pathogens and diseases. The use of antibiotics and growth hormones could be strongly reduced or even become completely unnecessary, which is why the term “clean meat” is gaining popularity in the English-speaking world.
Another advantage of the cell culturing process is the fact that it allows altering the composition of the final product. This is particularly relevant because high consumption of meat products increases risks of inflammatory and cardiovascular diseases as well as diabetes and cancer. Whilst researchers are not entirely sure which ingredient can be held responsible for this, studies have shown a positive correlation between cancer and heme iron. The production of in-vitro meat might allow eliminating this substance, making lab-grown products healthier and safer to eat. It might be even possible to replace saturated fats with healthier omega-3 fatty acids.
Yuki Hanyu, the co-founder of the Japanese clean meat start-up Integriculture, took this process to the next level and announced that he is working on so-called “green meat”, a cultured meat product, that is enriched with algae.
Finally, cellular agriculture allows producing far more meat than conventional livestock production: The cells of one single cow can provide us with an amount of beef which would save about 440 000 cows. The stem cells of one single turkey could produce enough muscle tissue for 20 trillion turkey nuggets.
Image courtesy: New Harvest. This image from Mark Post’s lab shows how muscle tissue is routinely grown in culture at laboratory scale. The cultured beef burger was created by growing muscle strands at this scale thousands of times.
What about the risks?
As promising as this sounds, it is important to consider the potential downsides of producing meat in Petri dishes. Even though some studies indicate that clean meat has the potential to significantly reduce the use of natural resources, others fear the opposite might be the case: A study conducted by Mattick in 2015 found that manufacturing chicken meat might require four times as much energy as conventional techniques.
These results show that the absence of livestock doesn’t automatically translate into sustainable processes. Unfortunately, cultured meat is not a magic bullet and there is no guarantee that the benefits linked to it will occur as predicted. Instead, it will be up to food producers to act responsibly and make sure the product will improve our ecological footprint rather than harm it. The use of renewable energies might play an important role in this.
Image courtesy: New Harvest. A photo from Dr. Post’s lab by Daan Luining. 10-layer tissue culture flasks used for making a piece of hamburger. Making the entire hamburger took many more culture flasks than what is shown here.
Another fact that needs consideration is that with around 1.7 billion workers, the livestock sector plays a vital economic role for approximately 60% of rural households in developing countries. High demand for clean meat might lead to an increased unemployment rate in these regions.
So, how clean is clean meat?
Even though it is hard to predict the impact of clean meat on the environment and our health at this point, research indicates that the product has great potential to reduce or even end animal suffering, relieve our planet from its current environmental pollution by reducing greenhouse emissions and introduce potentially healthier meat, free of pathogens and antibiotics, to our food culture.
However, these benefits will only apply if food producers take the necessary measures to ensure greater energy efficiency. If they do, cultured meat might indeed become the next food revolution. And what’s even more exciting: besides meat, there are many more products that can undergo the same process: fish, shrimp, eggs, milk, gelatin and even silk, leather and rhino horns might soon be produced in labs. But there are still quite a few steps for us to make before the first slaughter-free meatballs become available in supermarket shelves.