From Petri Dish to Plate: The Future of Cellular Agriculture

In December 2020, Singaporean restaurant 1880 grabbed worldwide headlines by serving up the first commercially available cultured meat. This was also the first time a country approved the sales of lab-grown meat, which many hoped would signify a shift in the way we ‘raise’ and consume animal-based food products. The lab-grown chicken produced by U.S.-based Eat Just wasn’t a new idea. Still, its acceptance on diners' plates, in restaurant critics write-ups, and the flood of new funding to other clean meat companies meant for the first time just about everyone was considering the just transition of food as an immediate possibility.

Cell-based Meat Isn’t New

Call it what you will: cell-based agriculture, cellular agriculture, cell-based meat, clean meat, cultured meat, lab-grown meat, or cellular meat; the future of food will be lab-based — at least when it comes to animal products. It turns out cell-based meat isn’t a new phenomenon. In 1931 Winston Churchill penned his famous lines.

“We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium. Synthetic food will, of course, also be used in the future. Nor need the pleasures of the table be banished…The new foods will from the outset be practically indistinguishable from natural products, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation.” — Fifty Years Hence

Think what you will about Churchill, but when it came to the future of meat, he was a man ahead of his time theorizing the different methods in which one may go about accomplishing such a feat. Maybe a bit too ahead of his time. It wasn’t until 2013 that the first cultured hamburger was developed and taste-tested in Maastricht by Dutch researcher Mark Post at the cost of $280,400. Thankfully a lot has transpired in the last eight years. Costs have come down dramatically, with Future Meat expecting to drop below $2. Paired with the public interest and price decreases, more companies are investing in the clean meat revolution, leading restaurants like 1880 to seriously consider cultured meat as a stable menu option.

Interest from Billionaires, Venture Capitalist, and the Agriculture Sector

Maybe then, it’s not surprising that some of the biggest meat companies hitched their wagon to the cellular-meat train. Both Tyson Ventures and Cargill invested in Memphis Meats, a cell-based meat company, in 2018 alongside Bill Gates and Richard Branson. Then CEO of Tyson, Tom Hayes, said, “It’s another step toward giving today’s consumers what they want and feeding tomorrow’s consumers sustainably for years to come.”

Hayes may have a point about tomorrow’s consumers. A 2019 study found that 65% of Americans would be willing to try clean meat. That was up from the 27% that Kadence International found in their 2018 study. With consumer confidence and willing investors, there’s been a boom in cell-based meat companies around the globe. In 2020 alone, more than $350 million was raised across the industry, with 70+ companies “focused on developing cultivated meat inputs, services, or end products.”

Making an Impact

South African Mzansi Meat Company, headed by Brett Thompson, saw an opportunity in the rapid rise of cell-based meat. Thompson noticed that “there (was) no one doing cultivated meat or cellular agriculture in the entire African continent, which is insane to think about…” and in 2020, connected with Ryan Bethencourt of Wild Earth to form the company — the first and only cellular-based meat company still in all of Africa.

Mzansi Meat’s ethos is threefold. According to their website, the company wants to cultivate meat to replenish the earth, regain individual health, and reimagine food systems. The latter directly addresses a growing concern of potential monopolies, inequity of global distribution, and agricultural greenwashing. By focusing on local food sovereignty and security, Mzansi may be creating the much-needed local ownership of food systems that have long been overshadowed in Africa.

Equally important to the company is the environmental impact. It’s estimated that cell-based meat would use just 1% of water and 1% of land resources compared to traditional animal agriculture. If true, consumers can rest assured that they are fighting climate change with each bite of juicy lab-grown burgers.

A Petri Dish Future?

Only time will tell what the future of cell-based meat will be, but it does look promising. That’s not to say there aren’t and won’t be stumbling blocks—the first of many being intellectual property rights. More funding will need to be directed towards NGOs and public universities to ensure the technology is not concentrated in the laboratories of the few. Additionally, scaling will need heavy consideration with investments to overhaul the agricultural systems if the true goal is to feed the global population and address climate change.

Finally, regulations, labeling, and safety standards need to be agreed upon. Already we have seen some push back from the conventional meat industry on the use of labeling terms such as “milk” or “butter” for non-animal products. This sheds light on the complications of defining exactly what cellular-based agriculture truly is. Regardless of its name, consumers seem at least willing to try even if it doesn’t one-hundred percent replace their traditional meat-eating habits.

For now, when we talk about solutions to the agricultural industry, food systems change, and the inherent connection to the climate crisis, it can’t be a this or that approach. The solutions must lie in a this, and this, and that style process. A system that is not one size fits all but is beneficial for all. It must take into account our differences as something to be embraced, not homogenized. Cellular meat is just one piece of the puzzle in our food systems and a just transition. As Hayes puts it, “Just as you see many different electric car models on the market right now, there won’t be a silver bullet — customers love choice.” It will not curb overconsumption nor dissuade meat purists (at first), but it provides a much-needed alternative with dramatically beneficial outcomes for people, the planet, and animals.

*For more information on how cells are harvested and grown, check out The Good Food Institute.

**Full disclosure: I serve in an unpaid advisory role at Mzansi Meats Co.

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