The best alternative to eating meat?

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Winston Churchill anticipated celluar agriculture almost a century ago (image by Cecil Beaton via Wikimedia Commons).

Meat created from the cells of animals presents great benefits for the world, writes Michael Dello-Iacovo.

CELLUAR AGRICULTURE – the growing of animal products directly from cells – was first proposed by Winston Churchill in 1931 in his essay, 'Fifty Years Hence': 

'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'

He may have been almost 40 years off, but cellular agriculture has finally gone from a prediction to reality.

Cellular agriculture, also known as "clean meat" or "cultured meat", can refer to a range of techniques used to create animal products using tissue samples from an animal or another source. For example, one could make a beef burger by taking a cell from a cow, placing it in a controlled environment and growth medium. The cell can then replicate until a sufficient quantity is produced to make the burger patty.

This process can and is being used to produce a range of animal products including meat, dairy, eggs, gelatin, horseshoe crab blood (used in the medical industry), fish, foie gras, silk and leather.

One need look no further than the impacts of the animal agriculture industry to understand why so many people are working on the development of cellular agriculture and are excited about the benefits it may bring to our food system. On a 100-year time scale, animal agriculture accounts for 11% of national carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (CO2e — not including associated transport emissions and so on), however, using a 20-year timescale, it accounts for 50% of CO2e due to the shorter-lived but stronger effect of methane.

Besides the direct environmental impacts, animal products are an incredibly inefficient means of making food — it takes a substantial amount of food, water, fuel and land to make animal products compared to plant foods.

90% of meat samples tested in the U.S. have been found to be contaminated with faecal bacteria. For example, nearly 78% of chicken breast samples were found to have E. coli. Growing meat outside of an animal would completely avoid this issue.

Finally, some 520 to 620 million farmed animals each year in Australia alone would benefit from being spared a life of farming. Australian law does not adequately protect animals seen as profitable.

In 2013, Mark Post’s team showcased the world’s first cultured burger at an event in London. This burger cost around U.S.$325,000 (AU$448,000.) to produce at the time. However, by 2015 it was already down to $11. A range of other companies, such as Memphis Meats, Perfect Day and Modern Meadow, are working on animal-free products, from meat to milk and leather.

The Good Food Institute is a U.S.-based organisation working to bring about a shift to the global agriculture system. They provide strategic and scientific support to fledgling companies working on plant-based or cellular agriculture food technology and promote these products widely. Their rationale'Clean meat is one breakthrough solution to the problems associated with raising animals for food'.

More locally, Food Frontier, founded by Victorian Young Australian of the Year, Thomas King, is working across the Asia Pacific region to accelerate the growth of plant-based and cell-based products.

Will people want to eat clean meat?

A survey of Americans in 2018 suggested that 66% of people were willing to try clean meat and 53% were willing to eat it as a direct replacement for conventional meat. It’s interesting to note that people under the age of 40 are significantly more likely to be willing to try clean meat than those over 40. A 2013 study found that simply learning about clean meat made people more open to the idea of eating it.

There is an incentive for companies to commercialise these products, even before they reach price parity with their animal-derived versions, since there are media and investor interests at stake. So we may see these products commercially available in the next few years.

Foie gras, duck liver with high-fat content made by force-feeding ducks corn through a feeding tube, retails for around $140. It shouldn’t be too much harder to make foie gras than other animal products using cellular agriculture, and so foie gras may be one of the first products to reach price parity.

If you can’t wait for clean meat, there are plant-based products already available in Australian supermarkets which have been hailed by vegans and meat eaters alike to be as good as the real thing. The Impossible Burger even "bleeds", getting its juicy texture from heme extracted from plants, which is present in real meat.

Of course, since there is no need for consuming animal products in the first place — leaving aside the environmental and cruelty concerns — there are plenty of plants to eat instead. There are over 20,000 edible species.

Michael Dello-Iacovo is a PhD candidate in space science at UNSW Sydney, running as a candidate at the forthcoming NSW State Election.

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