The year was 2013, and under the supervision of Dutch professor Mark Post, a scene more fitting for science fiction had taken place: the successful creation of the world’s first cell- cultured burger. In the following five years, the price of production had dropped from $325,000 to less than $11 dollars per burger. These lab-based proteins are called ‘cultured meats’ by purveyors of the technology as they originate from animal cells cultured under controlled environments. With cultured meat fast approaching supermarket shelves, the public remains both curious and skeptical.
What is Cultured Meat?
Cultured meat is considered to be the dietary end-product of livestock cells matured in-vitro. This technology utilizes many advancements in both science and technology, namely genetics and tissue engineering. The overview of these cultured proteins starts by use of stem cells. As stem cells are the precursor to every cell in the body, developed livestock myoblasts (muscle cells) are introduced to differentiate stem cells into further proliferating muscle cells. These myoblasts are subsequently left to mature in a bioreactor where both a scaffold and adequate energy inputs are provided. The final product is a system of living muscle cells, which is paler and blander than meat when cooked and consumed.
Production of Cultured Meat
As the technology advances, costs are becoming progressively lower due to the increase in efficiency of production. Because of the proliferative nature of cells, it has been hypothesized that ten swine myoblasts could produce up to 50,000 tons of lean protein in only two months. Forward thinking scientists have also speculated that the annual protein demands of 40,000 people could be satisfied by a single bioreactor the size of a swimming pool. With substantially low input and production costs, researchers expect cultured meat to settle to much lower commercial costs than traditional livestock-based meat.
Benefits of Cultured Protein
As one can assume, cultured protein has the potential to have large implications on both global hunger as well as protein deficiencies in developing countries. In developed countries, cell- cultured meat provides a promising middle ground between consumers concerned with perceived animal welfare issues and those who are indifferent. However, the prominent case for cultured meat remains in its potential for sustainability. According to the Journal of Food Science and Technology, in-vitro protein production produces 96% less GHG emissions while using 99% less land to create an equivalent amount of protein as livestock. Cultured meat stands as an undeniably green innovation.
While an exciting product to many, there remain many hurdles to overcome. A primary concern is consumer perception and overall adoption into the market place. Experts forecast a low rate of initial market uptake, but expect consumption to ultimately increase after initial concerns are dispelled through educational efforts. A second challenge for cultured protein is moving to market with lack of longitudinal research regarding the long-term effects of consuming cell- cultured protein on human health, an issue likely to impede consumer confidence and acceptance.
A final challenge to consider is the effects of cultured protein consumption on the established meat value chain. A large diversity of established industries contribute to the production and processing of livestock. A disruptive innovation such as cultured meat could have significant impact on sectors extending from feed inputs to the large logistical networks. Therefore, cultured meat could expect significant adverse reactions from both consumers and industry. How they maneuver through this initial reception, will be of significant importance to cultured meat’s commercial acceptance.
Into the Future
While there remains much more to be considered, cultured meat continues its inevitable trek towards supermarket shelves. Mosa Meat, an enterprise created by the original researcher Mark Post, expects market entry by 2020 while competitors aim for even earlier. With the increasing support of angel and institutional investors including Tyson Foods, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Cargill, and countless others, the reality of cultured meats existing on retail shelves remains a question not of if but when.
National Center for Biotechnology Information
Senior Analyst, Agricultural Technologies