Eat Just, the US company whose cultivated chicken ingredient has been approved for sale in Singapore, now the first country in the world to commercialize cell-based meat products, reckons its product will get regulatory approval in Europe within two years.
Now, new lifecycle analysis from the Good Food Institute, a non-profit group that is working to support the development of alternative proteins including cultured meat, claims the production cost of cell-based meat when manufactured at scale could drop to €4.68 per kg, thus matching the price of its conventional counterparts, as soon as 2030.
“This figure strictly reflects the cost of goods sold and does not include markup by the manufacturer or retailer, so this is the production cost rather than the price that consumers would see,” a GFI spokesperson told us, adding that the milestone would represent a critical turning point to the mass adoption of sustainable protein alternatives.
The sector faces other challenges though. The first concerns cell-based meat’s contention that it offers consumers a solution to the environmental issues of animal agriculture, while still allowing them to enjoy eating meat.
A 2019 Oxford University study concluded that if the electricity for lab grown meat production is generated from fossil fuels the carbon footprint will be very similar to conventional meat production.
There are other question marks surrounding what is given to feed cells in the production process. If this is the same grains – such as soy, wheat and corn - associated with the production of conventional meat and deforestation -- then that puts the cell-based sector’s environmental credentials in question. Eat Just CEO Josh Tetric recently told the BBC Food Programme this was a “watch out” issue for the sector.
In response, the GFI pointed out that ultimately less feed would be needed in the production of cell-based meat because it’s a more efficient process and isn’t growing a full animal. The spokesperson added: "I think it's right for people to raise those kinds of concerns. We need to get this right so that the environmental impact is genuinely lower as we expect that it will be.
“The main concerns for us is reaching price parity with industrially farmed meat and reaching taste parity. I think those are really achievable within the next decade. If the sector doesn't achieve those goals, we aren't going to be able to take over farmed meat in the same way.”
The GFI also cited more recent research which suggests that once production is scaled up it will use less land and water and create fewer emissions than conventional beef farming.
In a life cycle assessment conducted by independent research firm CE Delft, researchers projected that by the next decade, cultivated meat production powered by renewable energy sources can lead to 92% less impact on global heating, save 93% of particulate matter pollution, and requires 95% less land and 78% less water compared to conventionally farmed cattle-based beef. These figures were calculated using data collected from more than 15 companies across the cultivated meat supply chain, including five manufacturers.
Nutritional question marks
What of the potential health benefits of cultured meat? Again, this argument is not clear cut. For example, studies have speculated on the potential health benefits and drawbacks of cultured meat.
One study concluded: “Unlike conventional meat, cultured muscle cells may be safer, without any adjacent digestive organs. On the other hand, with this high level of cell multiplication, some dysregulation is likely as happens in cancer cells. Likewise, the control of its nutritional composition is still unclear, especially for micronutrients and iron.”
According to the GFI spokesperson: “Cultivated meat is antibiotic-free, so it will help to protect lifesaving antibiotics for human medicine. It will also be free from the faecal bacteria E. coli, Salmonella, and other pathogens that currently sicken and kill thousands of people each year. And the harmful land, water, and air pollution from factory farms will disappear.”
Nutritionally, cultivated meat will be the same as conventionally produced meat – the spokesperson added -- although research is currently under way in Spain to develop cultivated meat with healthier fats, which could reduce cholesterol and the risk of colon cancer typically associated with red meat consumption.
Safety and quality validations for Eat Just's cultivated chicken, meanwhile, demonstrated that it met the standards of poultry meat, with extremely low and significantly cleaner microbiological content than conventional chicken. The analysis also demonstrated that the cultivated chicken contains a high protein content, diversified amino acid composition, high relative content in healthy monounsaturated fats and is a rich source of minerals.
Is regenerative agriculture the answer to the guilt-free burger?
But what about other production methods – notably regenerative agriculture -- which claim to be able to solve the environmental issues surrounding conventional meat.
Regenerative agricultural proponents, such as the Sustainable Food Trust, insist that animals should and must be part of the solution to the climate crisis by, for example, increasing soil carbon sequestration.
Furthermore, the nutritional value of meat depends on what the animal eats. Farmers claim that beef fed on mixed grasses and herbs, for example, provides a product with lower total saturated fat levels, higher vitamin and mineral levels, and higher levels of Omega-3 and essential fatty acids needed for cell repair and growth.
Patrick Holden, the founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust, told us: "If people want to eat pretend meat with a questionable emissions footprint, designed by a scientist in a laboratory and made in a factory, good luck to them, but it’s not for me!”
Returning to the Oxford paper, which compared the amount of warming caused by different beef systems vs lab grown meat, this, Holden told us, "showed that it is not necessarily the case that lab meat comes out better - on longer timescales, where beef is produced extensively, and where lab production uses some energy from fossil fuels, then beef can cause less warming. An additional point worth making is that even where the carbon footprint of lab meat is lower, the high energy use involved in its production may still be a problem in a future where we need to consume less energy, even if from renewable sources."
According to the GFI, however, regenerative agriculture alone isn't able to produce enough to meet the demand.
The spokesperson told us: “We're already using 40 million square km of land globally to farm animals – we simply don't have space for more extensive animal agriculture. Yields from regenerative agriculture tend to be lower than conventional, and estimates indicate that even if we were to shift all livestock farming to the least emissions-intensive production practices available, this would only reduce emissions by roughly 30% at current output levels.”
She added that those working to replace industrial animal agriculture with a better alternative should be working together. “At GFI Europe, we're focused on making sustainably produced cultivated and plant-based meat the default option for the vast majority of people – those who don’t seek out specialist products and aren’t willing or able to pay more.”
However, Holden insisted regenerative agriculture is able to satisfy the demand for sustainable meat. “For people who want to eat real meat, the surprisingly good news is that the amount of livestock products derived from regenerative farming systems is higher than people think. So, if we don’t like eating lab meat, there is an ethical and sustainable alternative.”