Lab-grown meat from animals tested without killing – is this the future of ethical food? | Food

It was a moment of confrontation for a vegetarian. First, pork meatballs and then slices of pork, balanced with a sort of mini BLT, were presented to be eaten by the waiting hosts. The meat even came from a named pig, a friendly-looking pig named Dawn.

A little scared, I sliced ​​the meatball and ate it. Then I took a bite of the pig. It was the first time I’d tasted meat in 11 years, made possible by the fact that Dawn, who was gambling on a field in upstate New York, wouldn’t die for it.

Instead, a bunch of his cells have been grown in a lab to create a product known as “cultured meat” that has better adapted to climate conditions, as well as the deadly concerns of pigs and cows, and is preparing to fly in the United States. .

Eitan Fisher, founder of cultured meat producer Mission Barns, who invited the Guardian to a taste test, said: “One harmless sample of a pig can produce millions of tonnes without requiring us to raise and slaughter one animal at a time.” at an upscale Manhattan hotel. The meatballs were juicy, the bacon was crispy, and even for a vegetarian, both had an undeniable meaty quality.

“We got this sample from Dawn and she’s living free and happy,” said Fisher, whose company has identified “donor” cows, chickens and ducks for future cultured meat varieties. “As people move toward consuming these types of products, this industry will completely change our food system.”

Mission Barns is one of about 80 startups based in San Francisco’s Bay Area, one of which, Upside Foods, became the first in the country to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in November. It is a major step in allowing the sale of cultured meat in the United States. On Monday, Upside said it plans to start selling its cultured chicken in restaurants this year and in grocery stores by 2028.

A restaurant shoots a video of a lab-grown chicken nugget dish during a media launch in Singapore. Photo: Nicholas Yeo/AFP/Getty Images

More than $2 billion has been invested in the sector since 2020, and many new businesses do not wait for regulatory approval before building facilities. In December, a company called Believer Meats broke ground on a $123 million facility in North Carolina that it claims will be the world’s largest cultured meat plant, producing 10,000 tons once operational.

So far, cultured meat — the new industry that’s settled on lab-grown or cellular meat as it goes by that name — has only begun to be sold in Singapore, where another Bay Area contender, Eat Just, was given the green light to sell chicken breasts and tenders in 2020. But as the FDA puts it, “the world is experiencing a food revolution,” with the rise of cultured meat promising to reduce the meat industry’s devastating planet-warming emissions and reduce its voracious appetite for land, as well as sustain livestock. the barbarism of factory farming.

Elliot Swartz, lead scientist on cultured meat at the Good Food Institute (GFI), said: “We know that we can’t really meet the targets in the Paris climate agreement without addressing meat consumption, and we think alternative proteins are the best way to address that.” ) envisions a kind of “all of the above” approach, helping to mitigate the effects of a growing and potentially catastrophic global appetite for meat by including cultured meat, plant-based offerings like Impossible Burgers, and simply ditching pork chops and steaks.

Livestock raising and slaughtering is responsible for more than half of the entire food sector’s greenhouse gas pollution, which alone accounts for nearly a third of total global emissions. Faced with the need to reach ‘peak meat’, GFI research has touted cultured meat as a solution, as it can reduce waste by around 17% for chicken and up to 92% for beef. found.

Vast tracts of land, much of it deforested for grazing and vulnerable to the spread of zoonotic diseases, could be freed up if meat were raised in the 30,000-square-foot facility where Mission Barns operates. Eating something that isn’t laced with large amounts of antibiotics is also in the public interest, the company’s research found.

“The production process is more efficient, you have significantly less feed material to get the same amount of calories, and you have a huge opportunity to restore ecosystems and slow the loss of biodiversity,” Swartz said. “It provides a way to reduce all these difficult, sticky global problems.”

A report last week identified the rise of plant-based meat alternatives as one of three “super tipping points” that could trigger a cascade of decarbonisation in the global economy, alongside the rise of electric vehicles and green fertilisers. According to the report, by 2035, 400-800 million hectares of 20% of the market share will no longer be needed for livestock and their feed, compared to 7-15% of the world’s agricultural land today.

Pig in the morning.
Pig in the morning. Photo: Courtesy of Mission Barns

The problem is particularly acute in a country that is the world’s largest producer of beef and chicken and the second largest producer of pork, where meat-eating is deeply entrenched either as a deep-rooted habit or because there are no affordable alternatives available. Americans eat an average of more than 260 lbs of meat each year, and that number is growing.

Exciting but brief, the craze for Impossible and Beyond Meat highlighted America’s desire for real meat over plant-based imitations. “In consumer research, a lot of people say, ‘I’m not going to eat that plant product, I don’t care how good it tastes,'” Swartz said.

Mission Barns, which hopes to receive FDA approval soon and has a line of bacon, meatballs and sausage ready for distribution, aims to “appeal to people who like to eat bacon and who like to eat meatballs,” according to Fisher. who himself has been a vegetarian for over a decade. “Whether consciously or subconsciously, we want and desire the taste of animal flesh. Plant-based alternatives come close to mimicking them.

“But for people who want that real flavor, I think giving them real pork is definitely the way to go. “If we want something that tastes like pork, it’s not enough to have a piece of tempeh and call it pork.”

Since launching in 2018, Mission Barns has gone on a PR offensive while developing its product, collecting data for regulators, and raising money (investors put $24 million into a “pilot plant” in 2021). The vast kitchen on the TV show attracted lawmakers and potential customers to watch at home (prominent congressional Democrat Steny Hoyer was apparently a big fan of pork), and a handful of outlets agreed to stock their products once they were ready. approved for sale.

Many emerging cultured meat businesses have some kind of niche—companies aiming to sell lab-grown sushi-grade salmon or bluefin tuna or even fois gras—and Mission Barns’ output is more than just raising animal fat. laborious and expensive muscle and tissue. The fat, topped with proteins and spices, is created by growing cells in robust bioreactors that replicate the animal’s growth.

The use of these cultivators, mostly used by the biopharmaceutical industry for drug production, poses a challenge for cultured meat as they typically produce small batches at high cost, while the food industry demands a change in this equation. The first lab-grown burger cost $330,000 to create in 2013, and while progress has been made, the price tag is still a barrier to expanding production quickly enough to compete with the traditional meat industry in the short term. Eat Just has a chicken mushroom that it says costs $50 to make in 2019, although prices have now come down.

The process can also be energy intensive, as meat farming requires repeated heating and cooling of the animal, which requires running on a renewable energy grid to avoid adding to emissions. But beyond the practical hurdles, the beginnings of cultured meat raise broader questions. Will the public see any reason to switch to this newfangled meat? And will it change the concept of what it means to eat ethically?

People sit in the tasting room.
Mission Barns Tasting Room. Photo: Courtesy of Mission Barns

The intended audience for cultured meat may be those who eat meat at least once a day, allowing them to bypass a more environmentally friendly option without giving up meat altogether, but the fact that meat comes from a lab raises philosophical questions for vegetarians.

If you don’t eat meat for animal welfare or climate reasons, what happens when these issues are removed from food? How much is being a vegetarian about such values, other than eating meat? I thought about this when I was experiencing a kind of stuffy, greasy feeling in a mouth unused to eating meat. Others are less controversial.

“I absolutely plan to eat these products when they become more available in the U.S.,” said Swartz, who has been vegetarian for the past four years. “People don’t give up meat because it tastes bad, that’s another motivation. I think we’re going to need a new word like cultivarian or something like that.”

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