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Is lab-grown meat the next ethical investment fad?

Laboratory-grown meat made from animal cells is expected to come to market soon. But will consumers get a taste for what some have dubbed Frankenmeat?

Laboratory-grown meat made from animal cells is expected to come to market soon. But will consumers get a taste for whet some have dubbed Frankenmeat?
Garry white employee

by
Garry White

in Features

28.10.2019

Earlier this month, it was revealed that Russian scientists on the International Space Station (ISS) had successfully cultured beef cells in laboratory conditions while orbiting the Earth. This experiment should help pave the way for humans to travel to Mars and beyond, allowing them to grow their own food on the way.

But this fledgling industry is not only about preparing for interplanetary travel. The success of vegan products such as plant-based burgers and meat-free sausage rolls means investors are eyeing the sector as potentially being the next ethical investment trend.

A range of companies are now growing “meat” in laboratories and expect to bring their product to market in the next few years. But are consumers really going to get excited about a product that has been dubbed “Frankenmeat”?

A long time coming

Laboratory-grown flesh is far from a new idea. In 1931, Winston Churchill’s essay in The Strand Magazine predicted what the world would be like “fifty years hence”. Churchill forecast that we would all be eating meat grown in vitro rather than raised on a farm by the early Eighties: “With a greater knowledge of what are called hormones, i.e. the chemical messengers in our blood, it will be possible to control growth. 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.”

Although he was out by about 40 years, Churchill’s vision is coming to pass. The ISS experiment technology was developed by Israeli start-up Aleph Farms and the astronauts used a 3D bio-printer to grow bovine stem cells harvested from an animal on Earth. Although such a product can be described as “slaughter-free” it does use animal cells in its production. It is not really vegan.

Texture vital

The main issues with meat produced in this manner are its texture and its taste. This is the industry’s biggest challenge. The “yuk” factor is significant and reactions tend to be similar to what is termed the “uncanny-valley” effect in robotics.

The concept of the uncanny valley suggests that robots made to appear like people, but which are not 100pc there, provoke feelings of eeriness and revulsion. Quite simply, it’s very easy to find humanoid robots “creepy” because something is not quite right.

Over thousands of years, humans have evolved to be sensitive to the taste and texture of food. This is vital to ensure an individual is not ingesting poison or rotten produce that will make them ill. This forces the brain into a small window of context and makes people likely to reject any food that does not meet this tight range of expectations. Laboratory-grown meat is essentially a protein mush – and will need to be more lifelike if it is to become a commercial success.

However, researchers at Harvard think they have found a solution. In a study published on Monday in the journal NPJ Science of Food, the Harvard bioengineers grew cow and rabbit meat from an edible gelatin base for the first time, which they said created a substance that successfully mimicked the texture of natural meat. In order to mimic muscle fibres, the researchers spun gelatin fibres using rotary jet spinning, a process similar to how candy floss is made.

But it’s not just the fibrous texture that’s important, it’s the way other molecules, such as fats, interact with the protein to give it its structure and taste. However, Novameat, a Spanish start-up, created the world’s first 3D-printed plant-based steak in 2018 and claims to have developed a scaffolding technology that mimics the texture and appearance of fibrous meats such as steaks, chicken breasts and fish filets. Whether consumers agree remains to be seen.

US start-up Just claims to have developed cultured chicken nuggets that are ready for small-scale commercialisation, with restaurant partners already signed up. Although they are likely to be the first lab-grown meat product available commercially, they are expected to cost a whopping $50 (£39) each.

Cost a factor

This highlights another issue – at least initially. These products are going to be very expensive. The ethical side of this industry is its environmental impact. If people move away from farmed beef, there would be less need to clear land to raise cattle, and less methane released into the atmosphere. However, the environmental argument does not quite stack up right now.

Indeed, some say that the industry could actually exacerbate climate change. That’s because of the energy required to manufacture these products and the longer-lasting impact of carbon pollution compared to methane gas emissions.

A study by Oxford University researchers on the climate impacts of cultured meat concluded that it all depends on what level of decarbonised energy generation is used in the production process. “Based on currently available data, cultured production does not necessarily give license for unrestrained meat consumption,” the paper concluded.

Most of the companies operating in this area are small, private companies that are difficult to invest in right now. This may be for the best, as the route to market for these products looks fairly challenging and there is likely to be more lifelike a substantial amount of consumer resistance. This may take some time to resolve so, although fascinating, the future of lab-grown meat is still very much uncertain.

A version of this article appeared in Friday’s Daily Telegraph.

Nothing on this website should be construed as personal advice based on your circumstances. No news or research item is a personal recommendation to deal.

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