By Bob Reid
The first hamburger grown from stem cells in a lab was developed in the Netherlands and consumed at a press conference in London, England in 2013. It cost $330,000 without the tip.
Today that same burger can be purchased for $11.00 which is getting close to the $3.50 one might pay for a burger at a fast food restaurant. Following that price trajectory it can safely be assumed that a price point for a burger produced in a lab or from a live animal will be the same or maybe even lower.
These cultured burgers are not being produced by a mad scientist in a lab at a castle in Transylvania. Some of the world’s most renowned scientists have been commissioned to produce a substitute meat product that could eventually replace a large portion of meat raised on farm.
Perhaps more significant are the names of the major players backing the research, names that will already be very familiar to the farm community.
These include Cargill, Tyson, General Mills, ADM and Maple Leaf. And in a society that worships celebrity, other backers of cultured meat as well as plant-based meat include Bill Gates, the world’s richest man and Richard Branson whose ambitious plans include commercial travel in outer space.
If any more indicators were needed that cultured meat is coming soon to a grocery store near you, Cargill – one of the largest players at the top of the food chain – sold its last beef cattle feedlot in 2017. In the previous year it dropped the word “animal” from its corporate name.
Rather than ignore this development taking place in laboratories across North America and Europe, the Livestock Research Innovation Corp. hosted a meeting at the Arboretum at the University of Guelph recently to examine the progress made so far in the effort to displace beef, chicken, pork and even fish from the retail meat coolers.
Speakers familiar with this latest silent technological development in agriculture varied from a student at the university to a business analyst to an animal science professor from the United States.
Jared Yantzi is currently enrolled in the Food and Agriculture Business program at Guelph University, coming from a veal and cash crop farm in Oxford County. He first thought the idea of laboratory meat was crazy. Then he did some research on the topic when hired by the Livestock Research Innovation Corp. through a coop work program. Now he is not so sure.
Dr. Robin White is an assistant professor from the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at Virginia Tech University. She made the case for keeping livestock in the food chain for numerous reasons, including keeping her job.
Alex Lazier is a business analyst with BioEnterprise, a not-for-profit corporation in Guelph. He presented some of the hard numbers that clearly indicated the quasi-meat business is not going to falter or fail for lack of investment.
Those investing from outside the agriculture industry in the U.S. include the Humane Society and a Silicone Valley venture capitalist.
As the industry – perhaps more accurately at this early stage described as a development – emerges, the promoters of the product are searching for a name with which the consumer can feel comfortable.
Names floated out in surveys on general acceptance include cultured meat, cultured protein, grown meat, in-vitro meat, clean meat. The most promising demographic so far is described as under 35, having a graduate degree, white, Liberal/Democrat.
And while there has been resistance to genetically modified organisms (GMO) in Europe there has been more widespread acceptance in North America. So far cultured meats appear to be drafting into the American culture and market on that GMO lead.
It can also ride the coat-tails of the “no hormones, no steroids” campaign presented by the A&W restaurant chain that has gained some traction with consumers.
Taking place concurrently with the progress made in cultured meat is the less-than-stellar image often projected in the main stream media of modern agriculture. The term “factory farm” that has been used with great regularity by animal rights groups and environmentalists alike, is adding a push to the progress of cultured meat combined with the pull from the Cargills and Tysons etc.
Those stretching the food chain from the laboratories to the supermarket meat counter will carefully take into account public perception.
“Consumers are moving away from animal protein,” said Yantzi adding it is something that has been going on for a long time.
In proving his point he noted that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill – portrayed most recently in Hollywood block busters – predicted the creation of laboratory meat in 1932.
“By 2023 they (cultured meat investors) want to replace all livestock,” said Yantzi. The product will, of course, be in the grocery stores much sooner than that.
Science has come a long way since 1932 as any farmer familiar with the complexity and accuracy of animal genetics will already know. Growing meat in some ways almost appears like an extension of genetic research. Stem cells are removed from a live animal, the fat cells and muscle cells are separated with the muscle cells put in a medium of dairy serum from a fetus to provide growth material and in short order one muscle cell has multiplied into trillions.
The cells can also reproduce in a medium of algae or fungus.
“The meat is paler and blander in taste,” said Yantzi. But a U.S. survey he cited showed that 65 per cent of respondents were willing to give it a try.
They will soon get the chance with companies like Memphis Meats from San Francisco, backed by both Cargill and Tyson, preparing to retail the product.
Other livestock groups shouldn’t take solace in thinking they have been overlooked by scientists working to replace them. A company called New Harvest, based in New York, is creating cellular products that will create eggs without the hens and milk without the cow.
“They (food producing factories) will look similar to breweries,” predicted Yantzi. The process may be so simple that it may be done on farm.
“There is nothing the livestock industry can do to stop it,” said Yantzi of cultured meat adding, “I find that a little concerning.”
Yet at 21 years of age with one year of university yet to go, he still plans to pursue a career in farming that involves livestock
“I don’t think cultured meat will completely replace livestock,” added Yantzi in a hopeful tone.
White described a future where livestock farming would co-exist with cultured meat and plant-based protein products as well.
“Cattle are nature’s recyclers,” said White, turning materials that cannot be consumed by humans into a consumable form.
In regards to plant-based substitutes for meat, she pointed out that they do not contain the fatty acids or the micro nutrients and some essential vitamins that are required for a healthy diet.
But will clever scientists eventually be able to put the needed vitamins in other man-made food products? Likely, predicted White.
White and a co-worker carried out extensive research based on work previously done by wide range of government organizations dealing with agriculture, health, lifestyle, environment, etc.
A model was created in which all forage and pasture land was converted to the production of grains, fruits and vegetables.
It was estimated that such a system of farming would result in only a 2.6 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases, one of the negative factors attributed to livestock agriculture, currently identified as producing 14.5 per cent of all global greenhouse gases.
She pointed to fruit production as being a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in any hypothetical transition to crops-only agriculture.
The cost per day of producing enough calories to meet one person’s requirements was $2.80 in a system with livestock versus $2.05 for a crops-only system.
However, to use a dairy nutrition term, a person on a plants-only diet would be limited by dry matter intake resulting in insufficient calories on a daily basis, said White.
A diet based solely on plants would not resemble a vegan or vegetarian diet, added White.
This has already been acknowledged by those testing the cultured meat market who targetted meat-eating consumers.
Beyond Meats, based in Los Angeles, has claimed creation of the world’s first plant-based burger, The Beyond Burger, that cooks and looks (leaking the beet juice ingredient on the grill) like a regular meat patty, said Lazier.
It uses peas as the base plant ingredient rather than soy.
Lazier listed several companies hoping to gain a significant portion of the pretend-meat market. Daiya Foods based in Vancouver makes both cheese and meat-based products. Impossible Foods in Redwood, California has invested $273 million in its plant-based meats. It was founded by Stanford biochemist Patrick Brown with the stated intention of eliminating animal agriculture.
The Canadian government has become involved by investing $950 million into the Protein Industries Supercluster, researching plant-based proteins. The recently revamped Canadian Food Guide has steered the masses toward plant-based proteins as well.
If all these emerging players were not enough to catch the attention of the livestock industry, Lazier touched briefly on the use of algae-based protein by companies like New Wave Sustainable Seafood, in San Francisco, producing seafood in the form of a textured shrimp.
And then there are insect forms of protein – 1,900 types of insect protein in fact. It is available in several forms already in the Loblaws supermarket chain.
American cattlemen, more experienced in facing depressed markets and severe weather, probably didn’t expect this new offensive to the rear flank of their livelihood. They have already began lobbying to keep cultured meat products separate from the retail meat coolers and remove the word “meat” from labelling.
In Canada there could be bureaucratic barriers to cultured meat by government inspection agencies, similar to the witch hunt carried out in Ontario against small butcher shops.
The percentage of the population working in livestock has already been reduced to a miniscule number through mechanization and computer technology. Transferring from open range or barnyard to a food factory will not likely be an option with that process even more conducive to mechanization.
There will undoubtedly be some training required for cultured meat factory workers to prevent contamination of product during the process. A widespread recall would definitely affect the consumer acceptance proponents of the product will be trying to build.
It is accurate to say that the process in developing cultured meat has moved from the realm of science into engineering.
White suggested the animal rights people who oppose the use of livestock for food might also oppose their mass slaughter on ethical grounds if they were deemed redundant.
It was also suggested that the desire to purchase local food in the form of meat might be seen as more beneficial than transporting plant-based protein imported great distances from areas of the world with a climate most suited to fruit and vegetable production.
The sensationalism factor in the introduction of man-made meat will not be a deterrent in a U.S. culture awash in sensationalism, said White using mass shootings as an example.
Furthermore the steadfast refusal to give up guns by a large portion of the population may also be displayed in the same refusal to give up red meat to any alternative, added White.◊