According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, by 2050, we will need to produce 70% more food to sustain the demands of a growing population. Cultured meat might be an answer.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, by 2050, we will need to produce 70% more food to sustain the demands of a growing population. Cultured meat (also called in vitro, artificial or lab-grown meat) might be an answer.
Nowadays, a significant portion of livestock is raised within the factory farming model. Regardless of the lower contribution to greenhouse gases and water usage comparing to extensive agriculture, the model is primarily focused on efficiency (i.e., quantities) rather than on its impacts such as climate change, interaction with the environment, less use of antibiotics, animal well-being or sustainability. Therefore, more efficient ways of protein production are being developed to sustain the growing global population while complying with today’s challenges, such as environmental and animal welfare issues.
The production of cultured meat aims to recreate the complex structure of livestock muscles with a few cells. A piece of muscle is cut from the animal to liberate steam cells – cells with the ability to proliferate but can also transform themselves into other types of cells, such as muscle cells and fat cells. Technically, research is still required to improve cell culture methodology. It is also almost impossible to reproduce the diversity of meats derived from different species, breeds and cuts.
Some researchers claim that cultured meat is safer than conventional meat since it is produced in an environment fully controlled by producers. Cultured muscle cells have reduced changes to encounter intestinal pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella or Campylobacter. However, with a high level of cell multiplication, some dysregulation is likely to happen, as occurs in cancer cells.
Environmentally, the potential advantages of cultured meat for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are a matter of controversy. Regarding land, cultured meat will need less land than conventional meat production, based mainly on pasture. Nevertheless, this does not equate to an advantage for cultured meat. Indeed, livestock plays a crucial role in maintaining soil carbon content and soil fertility, since its manure is a source of organic matter, nitrogen, and phosphorus. More criteria need to be considered for a comparison between meat productions.
How consumers perceive and accept or reject cultured meat is mostly a matter of controversy. Initial reactions were feelings of disgust and perceived unnaturalness, but benefits were acknowledged. The deeper concerns were related to controllability, regulation and labelling and consumers tend to reject the name “in vitro meat” firmly. Still, consumers’ vision of cultured meat is likely to change over time as more information becomes available.
Cultured meat is still far away from the real muscle, which is made up of organized fibers, nerves, connective tissue, blood vessels and fat cells. Currently, research on cultured meat has a limited scope, but the product will evolve continuously to optimize the production, quality and efficiency of cell division. It remains to be seen whether this progress will be enough to be competitive against other solutions, such as plant-based alternatives.