IIt was a confrontational moment for a vegetarian. First a pork meatball, then slices of bacon, balanced in a kind of mini BLT, were served to eat by beaming and eager hosts. The meat even came from a named pig, an affable-looking pig called Dawn.
With some trepidation, I sliced the meatball and ate it. I then took a bite of bacon. It was my first taste of meat in 11 years, a puzzling experience made possible by the fact that Dawn, frolicking in an upstate New York field, didn’t die for this meal.
Instead, a group of his cells were grown in a lab to create what is called “cultured meat”, a product touted as far better for the climate – as well as the deadly concerns of pigs and cattle. cows – and should take off in the United States. .
“One harmless sample from a pig can produce several million tons of product without forcing us to raise and slaughter an animal each time,” said Eitan Fisher, founder of Mission Barns, a cultured meat maker who invited the Guardian to a taste test. in an upscale Manhattan hotel. The meatball was succulent, the bacon was crispy and, even for a vegetarian, both had the undeniable goodness of meat.
“We got this sample from Dawn and she lives free and happily,” said Fisher, whose company has identified a “donor” cow, chicken and duck for future cultured meat lines. “This industry will absolutely transform our food system as people move towards consuming these types of products.”
Mission Barns is one of nearly 80 San Francisco Bay Area-based start-ups jostling for position after one of them, Upside Foods, became the first in the country to get the l approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in November, a key step to allow the sale of meat grown in the United States. On Monday, Upside announced plans to begin selling its cultured chicken in restaurants this year and in grocery stores by 2028.
Over $2 billion has been invested in the sector since 2020 and many new companies are not waiting for regulatory approval before building facilities. In December, a company called Believer Meats opened a $123 million facility in North Carolina that it says will be the world’s largest cultured meat plant, expected to produce 10,000 tons of product when operational.
Cultured meat – the fledgling industry settled on that name rather than lab or cell-grown meat – has so far only started selling in Singapore, where another regional competitor from the bay, called Eat Just, has been given the green light to sell chicken breasts and tenderloins in 2020. But the “world is going through a food revolution,” as the FDA puts it, with the cultured meat boom that promises to cut the meat industry’s ruinous global warming emissions and curb its voracious appetite for the land, as well as spare livestock. the barbarism of factory farming.
“We know we can’t really meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement without addressing meat consumption and we believe that alternative proteins are the best way to address this,” said Elliot Swartz, scientist principal on cultured meat at the Good Food Institute (GFI) which envisions a kind of “all of the above” approach where cultured meat, plant-based offerings like impossible burgers, and simply giving up chops from pork and steaks are helping to mitigate the impact of a growing and potentially disastrous global appetite for meat.
Raising and slaughtering livestock are responsible for more than half of the greenhouse gas pollution of the entire food sector, which alone is estimated to contribute about a third of total global emissions. Faced with the need to reach the “meat peak”, cultured meat was put forward as a solution because it reduces emissions by around 17% for chicken and up to 92% for beef, heaviest meat on the planet, according to GFI research found.
Fixed areas of land, much of it deforested for grazing and vulnerable to outbreaks of zoonotic disease, could meanwhile be freed up if meat is brought up instead in the kind of 30,000-square-foot facility that Mission Barns operates. . Eating something that hasn’t been fed large amounts of antibiotics is also particularly appealing to the public, according to the company’s research.
“The production process is more efficient, you have far fewer raw materials to get the same amount of calories, and you have a huge opportunity to restore ecosystems and slow biodiversity loss,” Swartz said. “It alleviates all of those difficult and sticky global challenges.”
A report released last week identified a rise in plant-based meat substitutes as one of three ‘super tipping points’ that could trigger a decarbonization cascade in the global economy, alongside the boost in electric vehicles and green manures. He found that a 20% market share by 2035 would mean that 400-800 million hectares of land would no longer be needed for livestock and their fodder, equivalent to 7-15% of global farmland. today, says the report.
This challenge is particularly acute in the United States, the world’s largest producer of beef and chicken and the second-largest pork producer, a country where meat consumption is deeply ingrained due to ingrained habits or lack of available and affordable alternatives to the point that each American eats more than 260 pounds of meat each year, on average, a figure that seems to be increasing.
An excited, but brief, craze for Impossible and Beyond Meat underscored American desires for real meat, rather than plant-based imitations. “In consumer studies, a lot of people say, ‘I don’t eat that plant stuff, I don’t care how good it tastes,'” Swartz said.
The goal of Mission Barns, which hopes to gain its own FDA approval shortly and has a ready-to-distribute line of bacon, meatballs and sausages, is “to appeal to people who like to eat bacon and who like to eat meatballs,” according to Fisher, who himself has been a vegetarian for more than a decade. “Whether consciously or unconsciously, we crave and crave the flavor of animal meat. Herbal alternatives come close to emulating them.
“But for people who want that real flavor, I think giving them real pork is definitely the way to go. If we want something that tastes like bacon, just having a piece of tempeh and to call it bacon.
Since its launch in 2018, Mission Barns has embarked on a public relations offensive while developing its product, gathering information for regulators and raising funds (investors invested $24 million in a “pilot plant ” in 2021). A sprawling kitchen that would look like home on a TV set hosted lawmakers and potential customers (Steny Hoyer, a prominent congressional Democrat, was apparently a big fan of bacon) and a handful of outlets agreed to stock its products once they are approved for sale.
Many emerging cultured meat companies have some sort of niche – companies that aim to sell sushi-grade lab-grown salmon, or bluefin tuna or even foie gras – and Mission Barns is a company of efficiency, cultivating animal fat rather than more laborious and expensive muscle and tissue. The fat, which contains proteins and seasonings, is created by growing cells in robust bioreactors, which mimic the growth of an animal.
The use of these cultivators, more commonly deployed by the biopharmaceutical industry to manufacture drugs, poses a problem for cultured meat as they more typically create small batches at high cost, whereas the food industry requires this equation to be reversed. Creating the first lab-grown burger cost $330,000 in 2013, and while there have been improvements, price is still a barrier to rapidly ramping up production to compete with the traditional hamburger industry. short term meat. Eat Just has a chicken nugget that it says is $50 in 2019, though its prices have now dropped.
The process can also be energy-intensive, as growing the meat must replicate the heating and cooling of an animal, which will require running on a renewable-intensive grid to avoid increasing emissions. But beyond the practical hurdles, the rise of cultured meat raises broader questions. Will audiences see a reason to switch to this newly formed flesh? And will it change the concept of what it means to eat ethically?
The intended audience for cultured meat may be those who eat meat at least once a day, to help them transition to a more environmentally friendly option without giving up flesh entirely, but the advent of meat laboratory poses philosophical questions to vegetarians.
If you don’t eat meat for animal welfare or climate reasons, what happens when these issues are eliminated from the food? What is being a vegetarian about these kinds of values, beyond the act of eating meat itself? I thought about it as I was dealing with a sort of greasy, sticky feeling in a mouth unaccustomed to eating meat. Others are less confrontational.
“I fully plan to eat this product when it becomes more available in the United States,” said Swartz, who has been a vegetarian for four years. “People don’t give up meat because it tastes bad, those are other motivations. I think we’ll need a new word, like cultivar, or something like that.