It is estimated that by 2050 there will be about 10 billion people in the world and that the demand for food will increase by about 60 %. The question is whether there are enough resources on Earth to increase food production, especially given the deepening climate and water crises.
According to FAO, livestock production accounts for about 15 % of all anthropogenic global warming emissions. Cattle, raised for both beef and milk, holds the largest responsibility, representing about 65 % of the livestock sector’s emissions. It seems that one possible way of solving this situation might be in ways to obtain food that has a lower impact on the environment.
So, cultured protein, meat and dairy products, represent possible solutions – due to their lower carbon footprint. This market segment is therefore expected to grow dynamically in the coming years. Studies state that, by 2040, alternative protein sources could constitute as much as 60 % of the global meat sector.
The Cellular Agriculture Society is a nonprofit organization interested in advancing global awareness of cellular agriculture, and independent of the commercial industry. "[Cultured protein] has the potential to revolutionize the world and so, our work focuses on developing public engagement material that solidifies that belief," says Kristopher Gasteratos, Founder and Creative Director of CAS.
In 1931, Winston Churchill imagined the future in an article called “Fifty Years Hence”, affirming that: “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”. Decades later, Willem van Eelen, a Dutch entrepreneur, held the first patent for the production of cultured meat. In 2004, scientists from universities developed a program called “InVitroMeat Project”. Through that project, an idea to create the first cultured hamburger was born.
Mosa Meat is a pioneer Dutch startup in the cultured meat industry. Founded by Mark Post, one of the scientists involved in the 2004 project, it is responsible for the first cultured meat hamburger. But before further details, what is cultured meat and how it's produced?
Animal meat is formed of muscle and fat tissue, and it's possible to grow this same tissue directly from animal cells. And this is what cultured meat is, under a microscope, indistinguishable from meat that comes from a slaughtered cow, pig or chicken.
The first step is to take some cells from an animal. A small biopsy can take a tiny sample of cells with no harm caused. Those, called "stem cells" are fed nutrients that cause them to proliferate. This growth takes place in a “bioreactor”, like fermentation tanks. The next step is for them to become muscle or fat cells, and to layer them to form the meat.
And taste-wise? Apparently, it looks like meat and tastes like meat. It all seems very dystopic and out of a science fiction movie, but as technology develops, we'll be seeing cultured meats looking and tasting even closer to the real deal. Imagine having fried chicken for dinner, but lab-grown?
Upside Foods is one of the older cultured protein startups, located in San Francisco, United States. Its product, cultured chicken, might be available to customers soon, waiting for regulatory approval that may be still in 2021. So far, Singapore is the only country that has approved the sale of cultured meat. And Israel is the home to the world’s first restaurant dedicated to cultured meat, SuperMeat’s The Chicken. No products are sold, consumers apply to eat the company's cultured chicken and to give detailed feedback in exchange.
As customers in Southeast Asia might start to see some cultured meat on supermarket shelves soon, Shiok Meats is a Singapore-based startup ready to arrive at the market in 2022. The company is working on cultured shrimp, with plans to produce crab and lobster with the same technology. As cells are isolated from shrimps, the cell-based product tastes the same as the original.
But as some countries are already advanced in this discussion, when will the European Union regulate cultured proteins? It seems that the most probable answer is for this process to take one to three years. Bureaucracy and political interest hold back the regulatory process. Also, there are questions about whether cultured meat will be able to be marketed as ‘meat', as the current definition from the Food Information to Consumers Regulation would not extend to cultured ones.
And not only meat is on the table, but also animal-free milk protein. Perfect Day developed the world’s first real milk proteins made without animals, produced sustainably and without the downsides of factory farming, lactose, hormones, or antibiotics. The protein can be used to make, for example, milk, yogurt, cheese, and ice cream. The nutritional profile and functionalities are the same as a regular protein, but totally vegan and lactose-free.
But what if no animal cells at all are needed to produce a perfect edible protein? Solar Foods, a Finnish tech startup, created Solein, the company’s natural protein ingredient made from thin air. To make Solein, water is split using electrolysis, to produce hydrogen. The hydrogen, plus carbon dioxide from the air, and minerals, are fed to bacteria, which then produce the protein. One of the most determinant aspects of this process, to make it more sustainable, is electricity. If it comes from solar and wind power, the protein ingredient can be grown with near-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Solar Foods researchers believe that, within this decade, their product will compete in price with soy.
Solein is around 10 times more climate-friendly than most plant-based proteins and about 100 times less climate-damaging than meat. Compared to other plant-based proteins, the production process consumes 99 % less water and only requires one-tenth of the land area. Also, plant-based products don't have the same nutritional properties as animal proteins. But Solein does, being a neutral and functional medium to produce cultured meat or even to make bread, pasta, biscuits, yogurts, and more.
Not only the stakes are high, but higher are the expectations for the cultured proteins to reach the markets. "For instance, if the first and largest commercialization effort creates a product that makes many individuals ill or tastes particularly poor/not like meat, this could very well stain public opinion. And for some consumers, it can be in a permanent, irreversible manner," concludes Kristopher Gasteratos.
Even though we can't predict the outcome, it's now very clear that, in the near future, animal protein will become a problem. Not only access to the whole population but also the hazards attached to the livestock industry. Science is trying to prove that it's possible to reverse this situation with cultured proteins, and soon, it will be as Churchill predicted, 90 years ago. "The new foods will be practically indistinguishable from the natural product from the outset, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation." It's a matter of time.
Photo: PK on Unsplash