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Will cultivated meat replace conventional meat?

Cultivated meat is not yet available in the European market, but recent developments suggest it could become a reality soon. Here we explore these emerging products and how they could change the way we produce and consume meat forever.

01 Aug 2023
6 min reading time

Meat is an important part of many people’s diets and livelihoods, providing nutrition and income for millions across the world. However, the global livestock industry accounts for approximately 14.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions (1) and, in its current system, requires around a quarter of the earth’s total land surface to function (2).  

Although progress has been made to reduce these impacts through interventions such as regenerative agriculture, meat production is projected to nearly double by 2050 (3). Therefore, there is an urgent need for meat production and consumption to evolve as we seek to transform the food system to be healthier and more sustainable. Could cultivated meat be part of the solution? 

What is cultivated meat?

Cultivated meat, also known as cultured meat, is an emerging innovation in the food system that has the potential to revolutionise the way we produce and consume meat. The production process, a form of cellular agriculture, involves growing animal meat from harvested cells in a laboratory setting, eradicating the need for traditional animal farming or slaughter.

Similar processes can also be applied to other products derived from animal cells such as cultivated seafood or egg and dairy products.

The pros and cons of cultivated meat

Cultivated meat generally requires significantly fewer natural resources than livestock, including land, water, and energy (4). This reduces greenhouse gas emissions and mitigates the environmental impact of livestock farming, including pollution of local waterways. Cultivated meat eliminates the need for animal slaughter at scale, addressing ethical concerns related to animal welfare. It can also be produced without antibiotics, commonly used in livestock rearing, which is contributing to the global threat of antimicrobial resistance (5).

Financially, the scalability of cultivated meat production could eventually lead to lower production costs, making it more affordable for consumers when compared with conventional meat. This is even more important with the cost of living rising for many parts of the world. In fact, red meat and fish are among the food categories where consumers have observed the sharpest of price rises in recent years (6).

However, cultivated meat still has a long way to go to bring costs down and to improve production processes. Many challenges are linked to technology and skills. The technology for large-scale production is still energy intensive, and initial costs of setting up cultivated meat facilities are generally high. The need for more skilled professionals in tissue engineering and cell culture is also large. Gaining public acceptance of cultivated meat will take time and effort, with consumer behaviour being driven primarily by taste and price

Some of the barriers slowing down the development of cultivated meat also include access to species-relevant cell lines, the need to develop the cultivated animal cell production process at scale, and access to infrastructure and equipment (7).

The current state of the cellular agriculture industry

Cultivated meat innovation and investment

Despite challenges, the cellular ariculture industry is gaining traction and has witnessed significant progress in recent years. Numerous startups are actively working on developing the technology further and more large-scale research facilities are being opened across the world. Companies such as Aleph Farms, Mosa Meat and Peace of Meat have made remarkable strides in producing cultivated meat that closely resembles traditional meat in taste and texture.

Aleph Farms, for example, a company developing cultivated steaks, has recently joined the United Nations Global Compact, a voluntary leadership platform for the development, implementation and disclosure of responsible business practices. The Israel-based company also recently announced a new AI and deep learning process that will reduce the cost and development time for producing cultivated meat at scale.

Investment and funding are also increasing for cultivated meat companies. Following the first disclosed investment in cultivated meat and seafood in 2016, a total of $2.8 billion has been raised, with investments on average tripling every year (8). Even meat producers such as Cargill and Tyson are starting to invest in cultivated meat!

Despite challenging market conditions in 2022, including high inflation, the COVID-19 pandemic, climate events and the invasion of Ukraine, it is still estimated that the cultivated meat industry will see increasing investments in the years to come (8). This is particularly important as regulatory approvals are starting to emerge across the world.

Cultivated meat meat policy and regulation

In 2020, Singapore became the first country to approve the sale of cultivated chicken products, and in November 2022 the USA followed suit with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declaring cultivated meat as safe for human consumption. In June 2023, two companies received the first approvals from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to finally sell cultivated meat to US consumers, though initially just chicken products to a handful of restaurants (9).

In Europe, cultivated meat is currently considered a novel food, which means it must undergo rigorous evaluation and testing before being approved for sale on the European market. In July 2023, the Dutch government agreed conditions under which cultivated meat and seafood can be tasted in controlled environments within The Netherlands, the first such move in Europe (10).

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has stated they are “keeping pace with the science” to ensure it is prepared when novel food applications start to arrive across the continent. Continued innovation in Europe towards consumer offerings will be supported by the EIT Food Protein Diversification Think Tank, which convenes stakeholders from across the agrifood system to overcome barriers, drawing from evidence-based insights.

“Cellular engineering is already being used in medicine to regenerate tissues or replace damaged or diseased cells. The technologies are advanced now and could be applied in other areas, such as the agrifood sector.”

- Ramiro Alberio, Professor of Developmental Biology at the University of Nottingham and EFSA colloquium panellist

Consumer perceptions of cultivated meat

Consumer perceptions of cultivated meat are also evolving. While some individuals embrace the idea of a more sustainable and ethical meat option, others remain sceptical due to concerns about safety, taste, and the origins of the product (11). Education and transparent communication about the production process and safety measures will play a crucial role in shaping consumer acceptance.

While acceptance varies across regions and countries, a study of European countries revealed that more than half of consumers are already willing to buy cultivated meat and wanted governments to support the development of the industry (12). More than 60% of consumers also said alternatives to conventional animal agriculture needed to be found (12).

A study by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) found that, despite 78% of UK consumers having heard of cultivated meat, just three in ten (30%) perceived cultivated meat to be safe to eat. Among those who said they would be willing to try cultivated meat, many cited the environment and sustainability as reasons for trying it (11).

Among those who were unwilling to try any alternative proteins, two in five (42%) reported that nothing could encourage them to try cultivated meat, but over a quarter (27%) could be persuaded if they knew it was safe to eat and 23% if they could trust that it was properly regulated (11). Interestingly, research commissioned by the Good Food Institute found that the term “cultivated meat” performed best with consumers for appeal and differentiation from conventional meat (6).

Looking to the future of meat production and consumption 

While it is unlikely that cultivated meat will completely replace conventional meat in the near future, it has the potential to become a significant player in the global food system. One promising area is the emergence of hybrid products, including cultivated meat and fat supplemented with plant-based or fermentation-derived proteins (8). As the technology advances, costs decrease, and consumer perceptions evolve, cultivated meat could become a mainstream option for European consumers sooner than you might think.

To learn more about protein diversification and the exciting innovation already happening in this space, head over to our community page.

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