lIt was a confrontational moment for a vegetarian. First a pork meatball and then slices of bacon, balanced in a mini BLT of sorts, were served to eat by beaming, expectant hosts. The meat even came from a named pig, an affable-looking boar named Dawn.
With some trepidation I cut into the meatball and ate it. I then took a nibble of the bacon. It was my first time tasting meat in 11 years, a confusing experience made possible by the fact that Dawn, who was gambling in a field in upstate New York, didn’t die before this meal.
Instead, a clump of her cells was grown in a lab to create what’s known as “cultured meat,” a product touted as much better for the climate — as well as the deadly concerns of pigs and cows — and it’s done is to take off in the US. .
“A harmless sample from one pig can produce many millions of tons of product without us having to breed and slaughter an animal each time,” said Eitan Fisher, founder of Mission Barns, a cultured meat producer who invited The Guardian to taste test. in a posh hotel in Manhattan. The meatball was juicy, the bacon was crispy, and even for a vegetarian, both had the undeniable quality of meat.
“We have that monster from Dawn and she’s living free and happy,” said Fisher, whose company has identified a “donor” cow, chicken and duck for future ranges of cultured meat. “This industry will be absolutely transformative for our food system as people start consuming these types of products.”
Mission Barns is one of about 80 startup companies in the San Francisco Bay Area now competing for a position after one of them, Upside Foods, became the first in the country to receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in November. ). an important step to enable the sale of cultured meat in the US. On Monday, Upside said it plans to begin selling its farm-raised chicken in restaurants this year and in supermarkets by 2028.
More than $2 billion has been invested in the industry since 2020, and many of the new ventures are not waiting for regulatory approval before building facilities. In December, a company called Believer Meats broke ground on a $123 million facility in North Carolina that is rumored to be the largest meat plant in the world, producing 10,000 tons of product once operational.
So far, cultured meat — the nascent industry chose this name instead of cultured meat or cellular meat — has only started selling in Singapore, where another Bay Area contender called Eat Just got the green light to launch chicken breast and tenders in 2020. But the “world is experiencing a food revolution,” as the FDA put it, with the rise of cultured meat holding the promise of reducing catastrophic global warming emissions from the meat industry and alleviating voracious hunger for land, as well as saving of livestock the barbarity of factory farming.
“We know we can’t really meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement without tackling meat consumption and we think alternative proteins are the best way to address that,” said Elliot Swartz, chief cultured meat scientist. at the Good Food Institute (GFI). ) that envisions an “all of the above” kind of approach, where cultured meats, plant-based offerings like Impossible burgers, and simply giving up chops and steaks help mitigate the impact of a growing, and potentially disastrous, global hunger for meat .
The raising and slaughtering of livestock is responsible for more than half of the greenhouse gas pollution of the entire food sector, which alone is estimated to cause about a third of total global emissions. Faced with the need to reach “peak meat”, cultured meat has been pushed forward as a solution as it can reduce emissions by around 17% for chicken and up to 92% for beef, the heaviest meat on the planet, GFIs research has found.
Vast expanses of land, much of which has been deforested for grazing and vulnerable to outbreaks of zoonotic diseases, meanwhile, could be cleared if meat is conjured instead in the kind of 30,000-square-foot facility Mission Barns operates. Eating something that hasn’t been fueled with large amounts of antibiotics is also particularly appealing to the public, according to research from the company.
“The production process is more efficient, you have significantly less feed to get the same amount of calories out and you have a huge opportunity to restore ecosystems and slow down the loss of biodiversity,” says Swartz. “It enables a way to mitigate all these hard, sticky global challenges.”
A report last week identified a rise in plant-based meat alternatives as one of three “super-tipping points” that could trigger a cascade of decarbonization in the global economy, in addition to boosting electric vehicles and green fertilizers. It found that a 20% market share by 2035 would mean 400 to 800 million hectares of land would no longer be needed for livestock and their feed, equivalent to 7-15% of the world’s current farmland, the report estimated.
This challenge is particularly acute in the US, the world’s largest producer of beef and chicken and the second largest producer of pork, a country where meat eating is so deeply entrenched through ingrained habit or the lack of available, affordable alternatives that every American eats an average of more than 260 pounds of meat per year, a figure that seems to be going up.
An excited but brief fad over Impossible and Beyond Meat has underlined America’s desire for real meat rather than plant-based imitations. “In consumer research, a lot of people say, ‘I’m not eating that plant-based stuff, I don’t care how good it tastes,'” Swartz said.
The goal of Mission Barns, which hopes to get its own FDA approval soon and have an assortment of bacon, meatballs and sausages ready for distribution, is to “approach people who like to eat bacon and who like to eat meatballs,” Fisher said. , who has been a vegetarian for over ten years. “Whether we consciously or unconsciously crave and desire the taste of animal flesh. Plant-based alternatives almost seem to mimic them.
“But for people who want that real taste, I think giving them real pork is definitely the way to go. If we want something that tastes like bacon, it’s not going to be enough to have a piece of tempeh and have the bacon to mention.”
Since launching in 2018, Mission Barns has embarked on a PR offensive as it develops its product, gathers information for regulators, and raises money (investors put $24 million into a “pilot plant” in 2021). A sprawling kitchen that would be at home on the set of TV shows has received legislators and potential customers (Steny Hoyer, a prominent congressional Democrat, was apparently a big fan of the bacon), and a handful of outlets have agreed to stock their produce. once they are approved for sale.
Many of the emerging cultured meat companies have a niche of sorts—companies that want to sell lab-grown sushi-grade salmon, or bluefin tuna, or even fois gras—and Mission Barns’ is one of efficiency, growing animal fat instead of more labour-intensive and costly muscles and tissues. The fat, to which proteins and herbs have been added, is made by growing cells in sturdy bioreactors that mimic the growth of an animal.
The use of these breeders, which are usually employed by the biopharmaceutical industry to produce medicines, poses a problem for cultured meat because they tend to produce small batches at a high cost, while the food industry requires this equation to be reversed. Making the first lab-grown burger cost $330,000 in 2013, and while improvements have been made, the price tag is still a barrier to quickly scaling up production to rival the traditional meat industry in the short term. Eat Just has a chicken nugget that is said to cost $50 to make in 2019, though prices have now come down.
The process can also be energy intensive, as meat farming must mimic the heating and cooling of an animal, which requires a renewable heavy power grid to avoid additional emissions. But aside from the practical obstacles, the rise of cultured meat raises broader questions. Will the public see any reason to switch to this newly formed meat? And will this change the concept of what it means to eat ethically?
The intended audience for cultured meat may be those who eat meat at least once a day, to help them bypass a more environmentally friendly option without completely giving up meat, but the arrival of lab-grown meat raises philosophical questions for vegetarians.
If you don’t eat meat for animal welfare or climate reasons, what happens when these things are removed from the food? How much does being a vegetarian have on those kinds of values aside from eating meat itself? I thought about this as I dealt with a sort of clammy, oily feeling in a mouth unaccustomed to eating meat. Others are less conflicted.
“I fully intend to eat this stuff when it’s more available in the US,” said Swartz, who has been a vegetarian for four years. “People don’t give up meat because it tastes bad, it’s other motivations. I think we need a new word, like cultivar or something like that.”