Porterhouse Steak $34.00 –grown from the finest myosatellite cells of a 100 day grass fed Black Angus in a bioreactor.
While this doesn’t quite kick the salivary glands into action, it could be the story of providence on the menu at any fine dining restaurant in the future (like this one). Well, that is if we are to believe that the hype around ‘lab grown’ meat can become a reality.
Lab grown, or In-vitro, or synthetic foods are a hot topic in Agtech right now. Children in Japan are growing their own fake meat burger patties in the classroom. Major traditional meat companies (Tyson foods & Cargill), along with well known investors (Bill Gates & Richard Branson) have ploughed vast sums into this space.
So what is this technology and where is it now?
In-vitro food can be split into two categories; cellular and acellular production.
Acellular production uses cells or microbes as a ‘factory’ to synthesise fats and/or proteins that are then used for products like eggs, gelatin and milk. These products contain no cells or living material and can be said to be animal free. In most cases fermentation is the process by which the products are created. Think a brewery, for food.
This technique isn’t new to the commercial industry. It is used to make animal insulin, and even synthetic vanilla. But as science is advancing, the product range coming to market is too. Clara Foods has created egg white protein without chickens and startup Perfect Day has genetically engineered yeast to make milk proteins, which are then combined with other plant ingredients to produce a cow-free milk.
Cellular agriculture production uses living cells taken from an animal, which are grown and cultivated in a nutrient dense medium, to produce a cultured product for harvest in a bioreactor rather than actual livestock. This technique was first used to successfully produce a meat burger patty in 2013. However, like livestock, the cells still require ‘feed’, which has come from a medium of animal based serum. A very expensive animal based serum that is, which has been the major constraint in the race to commercialization.
Two major players in cultured meat, Memphis Meats and Hampton Creek claim to have found an alternative ‘feed’ and now have very ambitious aims of commercialization and cost parity in the next few years. In Israel SuperMeat are starting work on culturing chicken and a team in San Francisco are even working on Bluefin tuna at a biotech accelerator.
The loud PR pitch of slaughter and cruelty free animal products is an easy sell to a certain inner city demographic. But the potential for adding nutrients, extending shelf life or changing the food properties is what’s really exciting for the food tech industry.
As it stands today, challenges of technology, commercial viability, regulation and social acceptance are major roadblocks. The reality is, this innovation must pass the hype and get over the mountain of hurdles to produce a reasonable and affordable food alternative if it’s to wind up on our dining table.
Claims that this disruption will break the agricultural backbone of our economy are bold and melodramatic.
However, if we are to take a lesson from the fibres industry, the impact of synthetics is not something that should be completely overlooked. We will take a look at this in more detail in a future article.
In the meantime, check out the link below for a Ted talk on artificial meat: