Professor Mark Post, brought by Callaghan Innovation to New Zealand for Beyond The Line of Sight, says animal welfare concerns could see the living animal divorced from the process of creating meat.
This is the phenomenon of ‘cultured beef’ – meat grown entirely in a lab – which has rapidly gone from novelty news item to a few tweaks away form commercial production.
The first lab-grown burger patty was presented to the world in 2013. Dyed to give it the familiar red colour, and presented in a Petrie dish for effect, the patty cost 250,000 Euros to produce.
The processed meat is made by harvesting muscle stem cells from a living cow, which are then fed in a controlled environment so they multiply and grow into strands of meat protein about a centimetre long and a few millimetres thick.
“It was recognisable as meat, but didn’t taste like it cost a quarter-of-a-million Euros,” says Professor Mark Post from Maastricht University, a vascular specialist roped into the cultured beef programme when a colleague fell ill.
Since the publicity stunt, the team has been working on improving the recipe. Cultured fat can now be added, improving flavour and texture, and the cost of production has plummeted – at commercial scale, the meat could be produced for about NZ$100 per kilogram.
Improvements in technology could see that cut twenty-fold, making cultured meat ultra-competitive on price with its farm grown counterpart.
A company – Mosa Meat – has been created to take on commercial production in the Netherlands, and the aim is to go much further than mere novelty burgers.
“We are trying to replicate the experience, taste and colour of real steaks. Mince is a by-product of steaks, so if we only produce mince it would be perceived as a by-product and inferior.”
What drives Post and the team at Maastricht University to try to serve up a meal that some have labeled “Frankenmeat”?
The answer lies in the global impact of the meat industry. Ruminants such as cows and sheep emit methane (about one-third of New Zealand’s GHGs are from cows and sheep), and takes up 70% of arable land, which could be used for more efficient food production instead.
And with a growing middle-class in India and China unleashing tens of millions of new beef-eaters on the planet, there simply aren’t enough cows to meet projected global demand.
New Zealand is home to over 10 million cows, about one-third of them for beef production, but Post can foresee a time in the not-to-distant future where the world has fewer than 50,000 in total – producing the stem cells needed to make enough beef to feed the world.*
This would lead to a 90% reduction in the water and land needed to make beef, as well as a massive reduction in energy use.
The culturing process works with any animal, but Post says beef was chosen because cows are the least efficient converters of vegetable protein to animal protein among farmed ruminants. In other words, cows leave most of the feed they eat in stinking puddles on the ground, adding to the GHG burden through nitrous oxide in the process.
“We are trying to replicate the experience, taste and colour of real steaks.”
However, despite all the environmental concerns, it may well prove to be animal welfare that drives the change in consumer demand needed to make commercially available cultured beef a reality.
Post told BusinessDesk “I think in the long run when we have the product essentially the same, the animal welfare aspect will mean you’ll see a gradual phase out of the traditional market”. In 25 years, Post predicts cultured beef will have virtually totally replaced reared beef on plates.
That’s because in theory there is no need to kill the farmed animal to make meat from its stem cells, although on environmental grounds Post advocates having fewer animals and killing them to harvest the maximum number of stem cells.
Fewer animals means less pressure to accommodate them, improving their welfare – especially in the case of chickens and pigs.
Animal welfare is increasingly driving consumer demand – witness the growth of free range egg and pork offerings in fast food chains and supermarkets.
Another benefit cultured beef has is the ability to positively influence the make-up of the meat to improve health and nutrition. for instance, Post says, they can ensure the fat tissue grown into the meat produces Omega-3 fatty acids, rather than less healthy variants.
All of which is fine in theory, but no-one has yet been able to purchase a “Frankenburger,” no matter how expensive. Making production commercially viable is the holy grail.
To get there, there remain a couple of hurdles. One is replacing blood serum with a synthetic alternative, so meat can be produced with a dramatically smaller global herd.
The other is replicating a vascular system needed to grow thicker cuts of meat. Happily, this is Post’s day-job.
Then the business realities will take over. Post says risk-aversion means its unlikely fastfood chains such as McDonald’s would be early adopters of the product, even if it is extremely price competitive, so cultured meat will have to go rump steak-to-rump steak with its farmed counterpart initially, relying on consumer preference to take hold.
However, another positive for the programme is that its investors see the return on investment in terms of environmental and animal welfare gains, rather than profit.
“This is not traditional venture capital,” says Post.
“Some investors [in the programme] have put restrictions on the university – in a good way – to ensure they are not going to sell the IP and patents to someone who will freeze it. Most investors don’t want it to become exclusively patented.”
It might be too early to warm up the barbecue for a cultured T-bone, but New Zealand meat producers need to start thinking about the impact cultured meat could have on their livelihoods.
*And if you’re wondering about fate of the remaining dairy cows, Muufri has plans for them, too.