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From Culture Plate to Dinner Plate: The lingering promise of lab-based meat

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Cultured meat is distinctly non-vegetarian and cannot be classed as completely animal-free. In the case of cultured meat that uses animal-derived stem cells, the animal remains the source of the meat – albeit, minus the slaughter.

TANAAZ KAHN: With the rising need to combat the effects of climate change – or rather the root cause of climate change, one sector has found itself under the axe: the food industry or, more specifically, the meat industry. For decades, those fighting for the planet’s sustainability have fought against the practices of the meat industry; from inhumane breeding and slaughter practices, to increasing greenhouse gas emissions – they’ve questioned it all.

Just when veganism was gaining traction globally, “lab-based” or “cultured meat” enters the picture. Lab-based meat refers to meat that is cultured in a laboratory under controlled conditions using bioreactors, similar to the way in which some biopharmaceuticals are produced…

The seed cells for culturing the meat can be sourced from plants and animals. In either case, they promise to become the next green and ethical alternative to traditional meat. Many people consider it “meat without slaughter”, but that might not be entirely true…

Every year, at least 18 billion animals are killed for food, but 26% are discarded as waste for several reasons, including poor quality and supply chain issues. In addition, it’s estimated that between 51 to 168 billion fish are caught each year, and less than half are used as food – the rest goes to waste…

The implications of such waste are vast when you consider that 87% of farmed land is dedicated to livestock agriculture. Animal farming is single-handedly responsible for 85% of Amazonian deforestation. Livestock agriculture also release greenhouse gases, such as methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, contributing further to global warming…

According to Markus Maibaum, plant-based food expert and former environmental researcher, “When we’re looking at only climate change, cultured meat can do its part too. By using way less agricultural land, we can reforest many areas we currently use as pasture (two-thirds of our agricultural land). In most cases, these lands had different natural vegetation, which was removed for grazing animals”…

There’s no clear data on how cultured meat is impacting animals at ground level. Since it’s a relatively new industry, debate on whether it will deliver on its promise remains. For example, when stem cells are cultured in a bioreactor, they are grown using culture media containing 20% Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS), drawn from the blood of a calf. Generally speaking, pregnant cows will have to be slaughtered before drawing blood (or tissues) from the fetus. The FBS industry has standard practices to ensure that the blood is drawn only when the fetus is dead due to anoxia while it’s in the uterus.

Currently, all cultured meat that is approved by regulatory bodies is produced using FBS media. It’s not only expensive, but also contributes to animal harm. It means that cultured meat is distinctly non-vegetarian and cannot be classed as completely animal-free. In the case of cultured meat that uses animal-derived stem cells, the animal remains the source of the meat – albeit, minus the slaughter…

The market for cultivated meat is expected to reach about $3 billion by 2030. However, with improved cell culture technologies, the cultivated meat market should take a substantially more significant component of the meat market. A survey estimates that by 2040, 35% of the meat market will be animal-based cultured meat and 25% will be plant-based…

For this to happen, a vast cultural and technological shift must occur. Most people still question cultured meat’s texture, taste and nutritional value. In terms of technology, we need to solve the massive energy burden that the industry will put on the environment. It’s hard to scale these operations too…

Once enough evidence indicates we’re overcoming these challenges, we might see an increase in the adoption of cultured meat. An excellent example of its growing presence in the market is its reduction in cost, decreasing from over $1 million per kg in 2013 to merely $22 per kg in 2020.

Cellular agriculture might soon replace a portion of livestock agriculture, and there might be positive and negative repercussions; positive in the sense that we’re moving toward a more sustainable and ethical future. On the other hand, an entire industry will be forced to undergo an industrial shift that will affect rural communities globally.

Cultured meat has the potential to be an ethical and sustainable alternative compared to traditional meat. We need to solve the challenges discussed in this article by developing cultured meat that consumes less energy, has a more natural composition and is completely slaughter-free. Only time will tell whether it delivers on its promise. SOURCE…

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