If we want to keep feeding the humans on our planet at the rate we’re currently projected to feed them, we’re going to need three whole planets in order to do it. Since, at last check, we only have one, something has to give.
This is according to the United Nations, which has said that a rising population and changing diets toward a Western style of consumption will max out the global pantry by 2050 when the world’s population is projected to hit 9.6 billion people.
That’s… obviously not good. So, global researchers are looking at ways that we can increase sustainability while producing sufficient nutrients to keep the planet moving.
Reducing food waste and growing produce in stackable urban farms are a few ideas, but the most sci-fi offering is the growing of traditionally animal-based products in lab environments without the need for animals at all.
Lab-grown meat has been making headlines for years, with start-ups around the world sucking venture capitalists dry as they attempt to do the impossible. The basic idea is that live animal cells can be taken from cows, pigs, lamb and basically anything else we want to eat, and plonked into a vat of nutrients and growth hormones where the cells multiply. It’s not fake meat a la the impossible burger, it’s real live animal tissue that has never been inside of an animal.
It’s not just your average burger patty that could one day be lab-grown either. Already there are companies trying to grow seafood at scale, while one Sydney startup has already started producing lab-grown kangaroo meat. All animal products are on the table too, with CSIRO-backed lab-grown dairy company Eden Brew planning to have its milk and ice cream on the market in 2024. Last year, a survey found that at least 25% of us would be willing to try lab-grown.
In theory, being able to grow animal protein that looks, feels, and tastes the same as regular meat on a mass scale would eliminate most of the space required for agriculture, drastically cut emissions, circumvent the ethically questionable act of raising and slaughtering animals, and provide enough food to feed the world.
In 2013, the first ever lab-grown burger was served at a restaurant in London for the low, low price of $479,000. One of the food critics who tried the burger described it as “close to meat, but not that juicy.” The burger had to be coloured with beetroot and caramel, breadcrumbs, and saffron added for taste. Otherwise, the meat would have been grey and basically flavourless. Without fat and without a circulatory system pumping blood around it, lab-grown meat is pretty far from a slab of sirloin.
Where We’re At Now With Lab-Grown Meat
Since 2013, the biggest challenges have been taste, price, and growing at scale. Currently, there are more than 70 companies around the world trying to achieve these goals.
In 2019, Mark Post, the Maastricht University Professor behind Mosa Meat, the company that made the nearly half-a-million dollar burger, said that the price had fallen to roughly $13.30 for a patty. That’s not bad going, considering the rising cost of burgers in certain inner-city fast-food joints.
Israeli tech startup Future Meats also made headlines this year when it announced that in just six months it had managed to lower the cost of producing 453g of lab-grown chicken from $26.70 to $11.42. The company has said that their “media rejuvenation process,” whereby fermenters continually remove waste product and feed nutrients to the growing cells, can produce 10 times more protein using the same energy as traditional methods.
They also say that their process generates 80% less greenhouse gas emissions, uses 99% less space, and 96% less water to create the same amount of food.
It’s impressive stuff, but critics argue that the production methods and the output are still far too small to scale and that it will be many years before this stuff becomes commonplace. The meat industry itself will take years, possibly decades, to rival the output of current production at some factories as little as 90kgs per day. At the same time, even when you’re paying just $11.42 per patty, the costs are nowhere near cheap enough to make the offering attractive, particularly in developing nations where demand is rising fastest.
That’s even before you get to cultural questions around whether or not people will eat this stuff. From a strictly vegan perspective, the process is not ethical. Much of the meat currently being created uses something called ‘fetal bovine serum’ — literally blood taken from the fetuses of cows. While it’s possible to make lab-grown meat without it, the challenges become much harder to do at scale. Although it’s likely to sway a lot of vege-curious people away from meat produced through animal slaughter.
However, companies and even governments are betting big on the stuff, with the above issues likely to be kinks that will eventually be worked out in the coming years. Singapore, for example, became the first country to approve the sale of lab-grown chicken in 2020 and chicken nuggets made by San Francisco-based startup Eat Just are currently available in the country.
That same year, more than $1.78 billion was invested into the scene by venture capitalists and financial organisations. If these startups can get the costs down, and overcome the regulatory hurdles associated with selling lab-grown meat, they could well be onto a winner.
Given the major demands that the global population is putting on the agriculture and food industry, it seems likely that lab-grown meat will start becoming part of our supermarket staples in the next decade or so. A lot of progress has already been made towards bringing costs down while the range and viability of lab-grown products are increasing. We’ve already seen a major shift in the last few years towards dariy-free milk alternatives as well as the rise of imitation meat burgers and other veggie offerings.
It stands to reason that lab-grown food could well be the future of produce, but it’ll probably be a long time until you’re sitting down to a vat-grown schnitty in the pub.