On 19 December last year, some chicken nuggets were sold in a restaurant called 1880, in Singapore. This doesn’t sound like a significant turning point in history, but it was. That small plate of chicken nuggets might well have been the start of a major industrial, social and cultural revolution — one the UK needs to prepare for.
That Singaporean chicken nugget was the first time in history that meat that did not come from a slaughtered animal had been sold commercially. It was genuine chicken meat, not a substitute, but it had been cultured from cells in a vat called a bioreactor. The cultured chicken meat was approved a few weeks earlier as fit for human consumption by the Singapore Food Agency, the first — and still the only — time a regulatory regime anywhere in the world has authorised for human consumption meat that did not come from animals.
The cultured meat revolution is also sometimes called ‘the protein transition’ and its advocates are confident that this transition will happen far quicker than almost anyone realises, in years not decades. They imagine that we could be the last generation to kill animals to eat, a huge milestone in millions of years of human evolution.
The technology is new, but the idea isn’t. In 1931, Winston Churchill wrote: ‘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.’ Now Churchill’s vision is turning to reality, and astonishingly quickly. More than 30 start-ups around the world are focusing on producing all manner of different sorts of lab-made meat, including chicken, pork, beef, fish and even lobster and foie gras. One of my constituents, Mark Kotter, cofounded Meatable, a Dutch company which is on track to produce cultured pork for sale in 2023. The Oxford University spin-off Ivy Farm Technologies announced last month that it is planning to launch cultured pork sausages for sale in the UK in 2023, scaling up to 25,000 tons a year by 2025. Billions of dollars of investment are pouring into the sector, with backers including Richard Branson and Bill Gates. The San Francisco company that made the cultured chicken nugget, Eat Just, raised $170 million a few weeks ago, and is now valued in the billions. It is a new tech gold rush.
There are strong arguments in favour of cultured meat. The most obvious is animal welfare. Like most of us, I love juicy steaks, crispy bacon and roast chicken, but I also love animals; and around the world, 80 billion animals are killed to eat each year. The hardline campaign group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals once offered a $1 million reward for the commercial production of cultured meat. The prospect of actual meat that doesn’t involve killing is likely to have a wide appeal.
There are also expected to be environmental benefits. Campaigners against climate change are concerned about meat production, which is blamed for as much as 15 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, and global demand for meat is expected to double by 2050 as developing countries increase consumption. Cultured meat requires less resources compared with animal meat, largely because it does not involve producing the head, intestines, bones and all the other parts of the animal we rarely eat. The cells take just two to four weeks to grow, rather than months or years if they are in an animal. A recent report suggested that cultured meat cuts greenhouse gas emissions by more than 70 per cent compared with natural meat. The ultimate raw materials for cultured meat are cereals, but overall the pressure on agricultural land would reduce. It could ease pressure on fish stocks, the only meat that we still capture from the wild at scale (many popular types of fish such as cod and tuna are impracticable to farm). Seventy per cent of the world’s antibiotics are used on livestock, increasing the risk of antimicrobial resistance, a major fear of doctors; but cultured meat doesn’t require any antibiotics. Advocates of cultured meat call it ‘clean meat’ because there is no risk of poisoning from toxins such as mercury or pathogens such as salmonella.
Then there is the issue of food security. Countries such as Singapore, Israel and Japan are all prioritising cultured meats as a way of protecting food supplies.
However, there are many hurdles. No one yet knows how to produce cultured meat at industrial scale, although companies are investing heavily to resolve that. Consumer reaction is unknown, and initially many are likely to be adverse to ‘test-tube meat’, or ‘Frankenburgers’. The biggest test is what it actually tastes like, and reports are positive. The BBC Food Programme recently sent a reporter to Singapore to try the cultured chicken nuggets, and his conclusion was: ‘It tastes just like chicken, and the texture is spot on. Uncanny. The taste is indistinguishable.’ If the technology takes off, food producers are likely to work out how to simulate perfectly all types of meat products. Cultured meat can be smoked, cured and spiced like any animal meat.
At present, cultured meat is much more expensive than animal meat. But industry insiders reckon the inherent efficiencies compared with traditional meat, and economies of scale with increased production, mean that costs will tumble fast. The US’s Good Food Institute reckons that ‘cost parity’ will be reached by 2030, although many think it will be quicker. The first cultured beefburger cost £250,000 to produce in 2013, but now the commercial chicken nuggets cost £12 a portion. Israeli start-up Future Meat, backed by some of the world’s largest food companies, has slashed production costs by almost half in the past few months, from $7.50 for a cultured chicken breast to $4. It expects that to fall to $2 within 18 months, making it commercially competitive.
If cultured meat tastes the same and costs the same as or less than real meat, it is difficult not to see it becoming extremely popular. It would not be the preserve of the right-on wealthy, but the standard fare for processed foods. This could prompt a huge shift in what we eat, as well as in our cultural attitudes towards killing animals for food, perhaps leading to a new taboo. One research report forecast that by 2040, one third of all meat production in the world will be cultured — an industry opportunity worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
This is obviously a major challenge to the existing food industry, from livestock farmers who will inevitably see demand for their animals falling, to global food corporations struggling to keep up. Unsurprisingly, the early reactions have been both to resist change and to jump on the bandwagon. In Brussels and Washington, industry lobbyists have tried to ban the word ‘meat’ being used for any product that doesn’t come from an actual animal.
But whether it comes from a bioreactor or animal, the meat is the same — it is just the method of production that is different. Major food companies are desperate not to be the next Blockbuster, on the wrong side of a technological revolution. The US’s largest food manufacturers, Cargill and Tyson, have both bought into Memphis Meats, one of the cultured meat start-ups which last year raised $186 million for investment. Tyson’s CEO Tom Hayes is reported as saying: ‘If we could make meat without the animal, why wouldn’t we?’ A few months ago, the Mitsubishi Corporation announced a partnership with Israel’s Aleph Farm to launch cultured ‘whole muscle steaks’ in Japan next year.
The meat revolution poses a challenge for governments, from the regulation of the industry to the livelihoods of farmers. Singapore is leading the way, but Israel has said it wants to be a ‘powerhouse’ of the new technology, and China is investing heavily. In the US, cultured meat companies are worried about resistance from the livestock industry, and recently launched the Alliance for Meat, Poultry & Seafood Innovation, a coalition seeking to work with regulators.
As it did with GM technologies, the European Union is showing every sign of resisting change. In response to the news about those Singaporean chicken nuggets, France’s agriculture minister, Julien Denormandie, tweeted: ‘Is this really the society we want for our children? Me, NO. I say it clearly. Meat comes from life, not from laboratories. Count on me that in France, meat will stay natural and never artificial!’ Dutch regulators closed down an attempt by Eat Just to have a tasting of cultured duck chorizo in a Dutch restaurant in 2018, and confiscated the samples, although the Dutch government has more recently put cultured meats in its national food strategy. Japan has set up a ‘Cellular Agriculture Study Group’ to devise a new regulatory regime for cultured meats.
Britain could be at the forefront of the revolution. We love animals; we are pragmatic about new technology; and our cuisine has not become a national religion. As an island, we are also concerned about food security. Cultured meat should not be seen as an attack on traditional meat producers, but as an alternative for consumers who should be free to choose. When I asked about arranging a tasting in parliament, I was told by the Food Standards Authority that it would be illegal. The FSA should now consider a fast-track approval process, and the government should develop a strategy to deal with the many issues that arise from this global industrial revolution. The change in our diets seems inevitable, and it is always better to embrace the inevitable and shape it to your advantage, than try to resist it.