China has been in the news a lot recently. Headlines cover everything from their handling of the pandemic to alleged human rights abuses, rising carbon emissions to the upcoming winter Olympic games. But with the release of the Chinese five-year agricultural plan on January 26th, the media buzz was, for once, seemingly uncontroversial.
Much to the surprise of many, one of the highlights of the report was the inclusion of “future foods”, such as plant-based dairy and eggs, and cultured, lab-grown meats. The Chinese government heralded these new-age products as key components to ensuring the country’s food security going forward, all while reducing its hefty environmental impact. For the country with the highest greenhouse gas emissions and greatest meat consumption, investing in a sustainable alternative to animal agriculture is a big step – one that could inspire other countries to follow suit.
Just like the real thing
“Real meat, made without tearing down a forest or taking a life, ” reads the tagline of Good Meat, a Singapore-based artificial meat company. Next to the slogan on the homepage of their website is a grilled chicken breast atop a bed of mixed greens. The meal looks like a typical chicken salad. Maybe a little bland for the lack of spices or sauces, but otherwise perfectly normal. So how is it possible that this chicken, not a plant-based substitute, was prepared without killing an animal?
At the cellular level, lab-grown meat is the same as any other meat. Both are made from animal cells; the difference is in how they are grown or “cultured”. Traditionally, an animal is born, and over time, will grow into a mature adult. Once an individual has reached a certain age or size, the animal is killed, the meat is processed and packaged, and the final product is shipped off to grocery stores.
Lab-grown meat begins with stem cells, harvested from an animal in a minimally invasive, non-lethal process. These cells are transferred to test tubes, then bioreactors, and they grow and multiply. The process is more efficient and direct, as scientists only feed the cells the exact nutrients that they need. Culturing cells also requires significantly less time than it takes to raise an animal. The final product has a much lesser impact on the environment and has the added bonus of being free of animal welfare concerns.
Lab-grown meat technology is compatible with the cells of nearly any animal. Success has been found with beef, pork, poultry… even kangaroo.
A hamburger grown in a lab
When the first synthetic burger was cooked up by a team of British chefs and scientists in 2013, the 5-ounce (142 g) patty came with a whopping 344’000 $ CAD price tag. Professor Mark Post, the scientist-turned-chef who led these first tests, was unphased by the enormous cost. Instead, he remained firm in his belief that his work would “herald a food revolution”, believing that lab-grown meats could appear in supermarkets within 10 years.
He was right.
With impressive advancements in biotechnologies over the past decade, commercializing artificial meat products has become the goal of dozens of start-ups around the world. For now, Singapore is the only country in which lab-grown meat can be found at restaurants or high-end grocers, and these products are still more expensive than conventional meats. But food-related biotechnologies continue to be improved upon, and the price tag continues to fall.
With lab-grown meats labelled as key in the future of Chinese food production, the world will take notice. No matter the motivations – political, economic, or environmental – other countries will undoubtedly follow suit. Then, backed by government incentives and funding, lab-grown meat has the potential to improve to the point of becoming the norm in the decades to come.
Forget the race to the moon – the showdown of the 21st century may be over test tube-grown chicken nuggets.
The beef with beef
The global demand for protein is growing while the planet is struggling. Climate change is throwing conventional agriculture into disarray and reserves of natural resources are dwindling. Veganism has been heralded by many as the key to these crises, but it’s unrealistic to demand from everyone across all cultures.
Despite vegetarian and vegan diets being more popular than ever, the global demand for meat is set to double by 2050, according to the World Resources Institute. For many families, eating meat is seen as a status symbol, synonymous with financial well-being. Unsurprisingly, nations with a growing middle class – like China – are experiencing the greatest rise in the demand for meat.
Besides obvious ethical concerns over animal well-being, traditional meat consumption is taxing to the environment- especially when it comes to beef and pork. According to a study by the University of British Columbia, animal agriculture at large is tied to “an increase in rates of methane and CO2, overconsumption of water, overuse of land resources, waste production, water and air quality degradation, deforestation, and species extinction.” The paper concludes that the strain on the planet from animal agriculture is unsustainable. “It is impossible for agriculture to expand to meet this growing demand [for meat]”.
Same taste and texture, without the environmental and ethical concerns.
As meat becomes more scarce and costly with growing demand and ever-limited resources, plant-based foods will undoubtedly become more and more common. For those who still crave meat in their diets, lab-grown meat may help fill in the gap.
For now, costs are still too high, and barriers to large-scale production and distribution are too significant. Improvements need to be made so that lab-cultured meats reach the nutrition expected from traditional meats, especially in terms of micronutrients and iron. Despite this, the reality can shift quickly, as evidenced by the progress made in the past decade. China’s new embrace of biotechnologies in food production marks a major turning point in making lab-grown meats a thriving global market. Necessary innovation and investment are likely to come sooner, rather than later.
Experts are hoping for the best, for the sake of human nutrition, animal welfare, and the environment as a whole.