Meat without murder: How commercially viable is lab-grown meat?

By Caroline SCOTT-THOMAS contact

- Last updated on GMT

Researchers are focusing on producing chicken meat (without the chicken) - but will it ever be cheap enough to compete with traditional chicken?
Researchers are focusing on producing chicken meat (without the chicken) - but will it ever be cheap enough to compete with traditional chicken?

Related tags: Meat, Chicken

Lab-grown meat could solve many of the world’s environmental problems, says the co-founder of an Israeli non-profit organisation studying the feasibility of mass-produced cultured chicken meat.

The Modern Agricultural Foundation was founded early last year with the goal of making lab-grown meat commercially available as soon as possible, and now has teamed with Tel Aviv University for a one-year feasibility study. Co-founder Ido Savir talks with a sense of urgency about the need to mitigate the environmental and animal welfare impacts of traditional meat production.

“We believe that cultured meat is one of the only solutions that could solve this problem from its roots,”​ he told FoodNavigator.

The project is focused on the production of cultured chicken breast meat and draws on knowledge from tissue engineering for reconstructing human organs. Cells would be humanely harvested from a live chicken (in theory only one chicken would ever need to be used), multiplied in a kind of nutritious soup, and grown on an edible scaffold to create three dimensional muscle and fat tissue.

“The technology for producing cultured meat is already here,”​ he said.

How long until lab-grown meat appears in the supermarket?

Estimates for commercialisation vary widely, from an optimistic five to ten years, according to Savir, to a less optimistic 25 to 30 years.

“Right now there are not many researchers in this field. Our first step is to create an open source resource highlighting all the challenges that need to be addressed before we come to the point where we can commercialise this,”​ he said. “…The main one is scalability. You want to go mass scale and you want this to be cheap.”

He explained that for human organ replacement a few thousand dollars seems like a reasonable price to create the tissue in the lab – but for food, the resulting product has to be cost competitive with meat from livestock.

Animal-free cell nutrition

Developing an animal-product-free growth medium is another big challenge. Providing the cells with totally vegetarian nutrition would mean the resulting meat could achieve mass scale without adding to the environmental problems that prompted the project to begin with; it would be entirely non-related to animal products, apart from the original stem cells.

As for texture and taste, Savir claims these issues are “more an issue of food engineering than tissue engineering”​, as long as the basic product is close to actual meat tissue, and he is confident that using scaffolds to produce meat that includes fat as well as muscle would deliver on texture.

However, there is still a lot of uncertainty around how much the project is likely to cost, and the current estimated time to market is wildly imprecise – one of the main aims for the coming year is to provide a detailed timeframe.

“It’s a lot about funding,”​ Savir said. “If you break it down and look at each of the issues independently, you can see ways that it applies to all different fields, so we hope to turn to the business community.”

The food industry has not been quick to support similar projects. Professor Mark Post, the Dutch researcher behind the world’s first lab-grown beef burger, suggested at its unveiling​ that “food companies in general are trying to stay away from really revolutionary improvements”.

Like Post, Savir is convinced that cultured meat is indeed revolutionary.

“We really think this is something that could solve a lot of problems in the world,”​ he said . 

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