Friday, September 18th, 2020
October 2019 saw a first in continental Europe – the public consumption of chicken meat grown on the scaffolding of a spinach leaf. Stanisław Łoboziak from the Copernicus Science Centre, who headed the project, talks about cellular agriculture, together with ProVeg’s Marcin Tischner.
The original interview was published in Polish and is available in June’s special supplement of Rzeźnik Polski magazine. This translation has been edited for clarity.
Stanisław Łoboziak: Our experiment was created for the Przemiany Festival, which was organised by the Copernicus Science Centre. However, work on it began much earlier, since I have long been interested in optical technology, tissue cleansing, and deceleration. I used a spinach leaf for my research, for the purpose of acting as a cellulose skeleton. We inserted muscle stem cells from the chicken, which are capable of turning into muscle cells. The experiment was successful and the tasting of the cultured chicken meat took place during the festival, constituting the first public consumption of this kind of product in continental Europe.
SŁ: The taste was surprisingly and definitely meaty, although, interestingly, the consistency was closer to seaweed. It was also slightly salty, because the medium on which it was grown contained large amounts of salt. And, of course, to make sure that the meat was created under conditions of complete sterility before it was consumed, we heat-treated it.
Marcin Tischner: 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 this extensively, especially given the deepening climate and water crises. It seems that one possible way of solving this situation might be diversification in the methods used to obtain food, as well as finding new production methods with a potentially lower impact on the environment. Therefore, cultured meat and plant-based meat substitutes represent possible solutions – due to their substantially lower water and soil footprint, as well as lower greenhouse gas emissions. This market segment is therefore expected to grow dynamically in the coming years. Studies indicate that, by 2040, alternative protein sources could constitute as much as 60% of the global meat sector.
SŁ: In a nutshell, it is produced by extracting cells from animals and then stimulating cell division to obtain muscle fibre. While this is still a relatively new technology,similar solutions and technological processes are already widely used in various industries, for example, in the production of cheese containing rennet, or insulin, which is used to treat diabetes. So this is a technology we’ve been using for some time, but only recently has it been used in meat production.
MT: There are numerous advantages – above all, major environmental benefits and a more effective process of protein extraction. Preliminary analyses indicate that both water consumption, as well as land use, may be much lower compared to traditional methods. Other benefits include the absence of antibiotics, pesticides, and harmful bacteria. There is also much to suggest that, in the next few years, cultured meat may be cheaper to produce than traditional meat, since it grows faster, needing only a few weeks, compared to cows, who need a dozen or so months before they can be used for meat.
MT: First of all, there are numerous technological challenges. To begin with, fetal bovine serum (FBS) is commonly used as a growth medium in cellular agriculture, but, due to its considerable costs, mass production will require finding substitutes (e.g. based on algae, fungi, or other plant-based components). However, several start-ups are already using synthetic FBS substitutes and they should soon become more popular. Another challenge is that the taste and consistency are still significantly different from conventional meat products. But, considering that the first prototypes of cellular-meat products were produced just seven years ago, significant progress has been made.
As for the legal aspects – it is not yet legally possible to introduce cultured meat to EU markets. Since the passing of EU regulations is generally a timeous process, cultured meat is likely to be taken to market much faster in Asia and the United States. Work is already underway in the US on legal solutions regulating commercially available cultured animal products. However, the sociocultural aspects of this technological development still need to be taken into account – there will certainly be a large number of people who will not be convinced about cultured meat because they consider it unnatural. Another challenge is that there is a lack of research into the long-term effects of consuming such products. The issue of naming is also an important issue. There are many different terms circulating in the media, e.g. ‘in-vitro meat’, ‘clean meat’, and ‘lab-grown meat’. We believe that the most appropriate term is ‘cultured meat’ since it best describes the growth process. Even taking into account all these challenges, I’m optimistic about the future of cultured animal products.
Cellular agriculture has the potential to be a far-reaching development, impacting positively not only on our diets but also on the environment, human health, animal welfare, social justice, and the global economy.
MT: The idea of lab-grown meat has been around for a very long time. However, the first real step was the creation of a cultured-beef burger by the Dutch scientist Dr Mark Post. The process of making the burger itself was extremely expensive at the time, with a unit cost of about US $250,000. Since then, several dozen cellular startups have appeared. As the technology develops, the price point should gradually get cheaper, eventually reaching price parity with animal-based equivalents. Thus far, startups from different parts of the world have presented their solutions for the production of meat from several types of animals – not only chicken and beef, but also duck, fish, seafood, and pork.
MT: Cellular-meat startups have already raised about $400 million from investors, making the sector a promising area for many interesting business opportunities. Three companies have announced that they plan to market cellular meat by the end of 2021. This does not mean that the meat will go straight to supermarket shelves. As I mentioned earlier, this will be difficult to achieve in the European Union for the time being due to legal restrictions. Instead, it will most likely first appear in luxury restaurants, Asian markets, and the USA, and may soon even reach price parity with an Argentinean steak. It will be expensive at first but affordable for some consumer groups. Thereafter, we will see how this technology develops further and what the acceptance level of consumers is. Although there is a lot of research on this subject, the responses vary greatly, depending on how the questions are asked and the extent of respondents’ knowledge about cultured foods. In my opinion, once the price is comparable to traditional meat, acceptability levels will be quite good. It is also worth mentioning that cellular-farming technology can also be used in the production of other animal-based products that may have fewer legal restrictions, such as dairy products, for example, or leather or animal feed. Here, the legal route may be a bit easier.
SŁ: The nutritional value will be comparable and will also be easier to control. Everything will depend on how the production process is managed.
MT: Current analyses do not indicate that this technology is going to dismantle the traditional meat industry, and the shift to cultured products will certainly not happen overnight. Of course, when cultured meat reaches price parity with traditional meat, some consumers may switch to it. However, this will be a gradual process. From the perspective of meat companies, I would say that this is an opportunity to develop and enrich your product range – producers could opt for one technological line for traditional meat and another for cultured meat. I also think that this situation will be much more challenging for farmers in the future. It may turn out that, in a few dozen years or so, traditional meat that comes directly from animals will become a premium product.
MT: Cultured meat is currently far too expensive to be a viable product. However, its price is consistently falling. In 2013, the cost of producing the first samples of a burger patty was about 250 thousand dollars. Over the years, prices have fallen to several dozen dollars for a single burger. It is estimated that, over the course of next year, these products should reach a cost of about 70 dollars per kilo. It is still a challenging price point, but, compared to the original cost, it is much lower.
SŁ: Because the culturing process is carefully controlled, current technology allows for the production of fats, amino acids, and collagen. As such, cultured meat can be considered to be health-promoting. Furthermore, its nutritional composition can be better controlled than with traditional breeding, where, as the price of meat falls, the quality of the feed given to the animals also tends to fall.
MT: Work on cell-bred foie gras is underway in France and Japan. Japanese start-up IntegriCulture Inc. announced a year ago that its products will go to some restaurants by 2021 and will cost between $190 and $1,900 per kilo. However, in the future, this may fall to as low as $1.90.SŁ: In Israel, bacon was produced for promotional purposes, and it actually looked like bacon. It is worth mentioning an interesting option here – since the cells are layered, we can structure this meat using 3D printing or other technologies that will be able to give it a look and texture that more closely resembles traditionally grown meat.
MT: Mosa Meat indicates that, theoretically, 150 cows will be able to generate the global supply of meat, since a single tissue sample of muscle will be able to produce up to 10 thousand kilograms of meat. However, at this point in time, this is true only in theory.
MT: In Poland, the pioneer in this field is Stanisław Łoboziak. There will surely be many companies joining him. I believe in the power of our scientists and I believe that Polish companies will also influence the development of this market globally.
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