Anthony Browne was hoping to have tried lab-grown meat by now. While the concept of a “Frankenstein burger” may cause some stomachs to turn, the Conservative MP from the UK has been hankering for his first taste.
“The cultured meat revolution is happening,” he told a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference last week. “Given it is happening, we ought to be open to it.”
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Despite his keen anticipation, Browne still can’t say whether he actually likes the stuff. “Cultured meat will only take off if it tastes good enough for people to accept it, and it may be that I try it and I think yuck, disgusting.”
It is not for want of trying. An attempt to put on a tasting of lab-grown chicken nuggets in Parliament earlier this year was blocked by the Food Standards Agency, who deemed the event illegal.
UK laws, carried over from the EU, dictate that “novel foods” must undergo rigorous safety assessments before they can be sold or even given away in the UK. Getting the green light can take 16 months. “We now have control of our own regulation,” Browne sighs. “It should be agile, nimble without lowering standards.”
Start-ups in the field are getting frustrated with the lack of progress. “If we don’t move quickly, countries like Singapore that have already approved cultivated meat for consumption will leave us in their wake,” warned Oxford’s Ivy Farm Technologies.
Research commissioned by Ivy Farm found lab-grown “cultivated” meat could add £2.1bn to the UK economy by 2030 and create more than 16,000 jobs.
“If we can seize the ‘first mover’ advantage, the UK can become a powerhouse for alternative proteins, exporting our products and technology across the globe and reducing the UK’s reliance on imported meat,” they said.
It is an attractive prospect for policymakers but there are hurdles, not least consumers’ squeamishness. “It’s funny that consumers would take that view when we think about the horrific things that go on in slaughterhouses. But I don’t think consumers will buy that [argument],” says Anthony Chow, co-founder of venture capital firm Agronomics, which invests in businesses focused on cultivated meat.
Instead, he says, sustainability will be a bigger factor to entice consumers. Daily meat consumption has dropped by almost one fifth on average per person over the past decade, according to a University of Oxford study published on Friday, on the back of concerns including health impacts, as well as the carbon footprint of meat production.
While it offers essential protein, minerals and vitamins, the NHS flags the link between some cancers and consuming processed and red meat, while its high fat levels can increase cholesterol. The World Cancer Research Fund recommends people limit red meat consumption to no more than three portions per week.
Some 80pc of people in the UK and US are now open to lab-grown meat as an alternative.
“It’s worth saying, it’s not being designed for vegans,” Chow adds. While grown in a lab it is still, essentially, meat. Scientists take a small sample of cells from a living animal, then multiply those cells in a bioreactor by suspending them in a solution of nutrients.
Within weeks, a few cells will turn into several billion, equal to a kilogram of meat. Some parts of the process have changed to make products less unsavoury to consumers. Firms including Ivy Farm now use man-made formulas in place of something called foetal bovine serum, taken from pregnant cows when slaughtered and previously used in the process. Money is pouring in. Last year, investment into cultured meat start-ups was $300m (£220m), up sixfold on the prior year.
And there are big attractions. First, there is much less waste: for every calorie of edible protein, cattle eat 25 calories worth of plant material. For chickens, each calorie of edible protein is equal to around 10 calories of feed.
“Cellular agriculture has a calorie conversion ratio of around two or possibly even less, to one,” says Chow. “Just based on that there’s a massive efficiency gain, so there’ll be lower greenhouse gas emissions.”
But the industry’s consumption of energy has been a thorny subject. Estimates suggest 4,000 facilities will be needed, running at full capacity, for cultured versions to account for just 10pc of the meat market by 2030.
“Just think about how much energy they’d need to keep bioreactors going,” says Richard Young, policy director at the Sustainable Food Trust.
While companies say they will opt for renewable energy, Young isn’t convinced. “We have a limited number of acres we can cover with solar panels. We’re going to need all the available space to produce renewable energy for other purposes.”
Global warming complication
The impact on global warming is another sticking point faced by champions of the technology. In 2019, Oxford researchers suggested cattle initially had a greater effect than lab-grown meat through the release of methane, but “in some cases the manufacture of lab-grown meat can ultimately result in more warming”, as carbon dioxide persists for longer than methane.
It is something the industry is aware of. More efficient bioreactors could swing the balance, with players like biotech firm CellulaREvolution developing devices that do the work of three conventional bioreactors.
As more bioreactors bring down costs, interest is ramping up with customers keen on energy potential and price benefits.
“The more you make, the cheaper it becomes,” agrees Russ Tucker, founder of Ivy Farm. It plans to make a facility to produce 12,000 tons of meat by 2025 and its first choice is the UK.
“We’re a proud British company,” says Tucker. Ivy Farm is, however, in talks elsewhere and could choose another country if British regulators are unyielding.
The FSA would argue it has not been given a chance. There have been no formal applications by companies to sell in the UK – without these, little can be done.
“We’re actively discussing the introduction of cultured meats with a number of food businesses,” says FSA chief scientific adviser Robin May. “We are very keen to support businesses who want to help the environment, including those working on alternative proteins.”
Browne says this is something he is yet to see. It’s true applications have not been made, but in his view, “the regulators haven’t been doing much work on it”.
He believes processes could be sped up, arguing the same could be done for processed meats as for vaccine approvals. “The UK could be at the leading edge of all this. Actually, we ought to be.”
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