The future of cultured meat: desire for innovation or psychological rejection?

The future of cultured meat: desire for innovation or psychological rejection?

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With the rapid growth of the world’s population, global demand for protein will increase by a factor of 3.5 over a 50-year period, i.e. from 1980 to 2030. The hope is that this demand can be met by increased production of sustainable meat compared to that coming from intensive farming responsible for high greenhouse gas emissions and exploitation of related resources (land, feed, water).

Global consultancy AT Kearney has predicted that due to the high environmental impact and animal welfare issues associated with conventional meat production, 60% of global meat needs will be met by non-conventional production methods by 2040. conventional such as in vitro meat (35%) or analogues of plant origin for a value of approximately 630 billion dollars.

The controversial topic of cultured meat

Cultured meat has become a topic that causes much discussion with positions ranging from the ideological rejection of everything that is artificial nutrition (e.g. neophobia) to openness towards technological innovation and diversification of the food industry. This has been influenced by incorrect communication based on the use of terms such as synthetic or artificially cultivated meat which contribute to arousing an attitude of fear and distrust among consumers induced to perceive cultivated meat as something unnatural.

To avoid confusion, cellular and cultivated are the terms most used by industry and regulatory authorities. Studies conducted over the last ten years tell us that laboratory-produced meat, an emerging and constantly developing technology, can constitute a complementary alternative to conventional meat due to numerous advantages consisting of: reduction of breeding and slaughter, lower environmental impact, linked to the use of land and water, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation, lower risk of transmission of zoonotic diseases (e.g. avian flu, salmonella), lower use of antibiotics.

Food safety risks: similar to those of traditional production

The sector is currently also oriented towards products grown from fish, milk, eggs and other foods of animal origin. Being a sector not yet developed on an industrial scale, it is characterized by a high level of uncertainty, which can be reduced on the basis of available data and risk assessment studies. FAO/WHO have established that by virtue of strict production process control procedures, the food safety risks of cultured meat associated with the presence of antibiotic residues, including microbiological contaminants and zoonotic pathogens are substantially similar to those of traditional production or possibly inferior.

Regarding energy aspects and carbon footprint, the life cycle assessments (LCA) published in the literature demonstrate that it is possible to increase energy efficiency by focusing on renewable sources, development of low-cost components that do not derive from the by-products of animal slaughter animals or the crops used to feed them and strategies based on combined cost reductions.
However, further studies and evidence of environmental sustainability and energy efficiency are necessary aimed at optimizing the relevant production technologies on an industrial scale. There is no doubt that its penetrability into the market will also depend on the social context of reference, often reduced to the two key issues of ethics and consumer acceptance, otherwise the success of the cultured meat sector will also depend on the complex social apparatus and government policies, including regulation, tax and subsidy regimes.

The decentralization of cultured meat production

In a future scenario with energy-dependent industrial-scale production facilities, technological developments in cultured meat can provide an innovative solution based on the decentralization of cultured meat production through the production of cultured meat from beef, pork and poultry directly in laboratories placed on farms, with farmers and ranchers included in the transition that sees conventional agriculture play a role in cellular agriculture. But this is not enough. This process will likely involve the combination of innovation and reform of existing animal production as part of the protein transition.

The Dutch startup RESPECTfarms

With these objectives, the Dutch startup RESPECTfarms, with its partners, bridging the gap between scientists, companies and farmers, is developing a proof-of-concept of the first farm-grown meat laboratory, based on sustainability, interdisciplinary approach and sharing of knowledge in the meat production value chain.
The Dutch scientist Willem van Eelen started working on this technology in the 1980s and now RESPECTfarms, through his daughter Ira van Eelen and co-founder of KindEarth.Tech, a privately funded nonprofit that supports the novel protein industry, is advancing her vision of the farming of the future.

The pilot project is part of FEASTS (Fostering European Cellular Agriculture for Sustainable Transition Solution) financed by the European Structural and Investment Funds. FEASTS will actively involve farmers in designing future processes and scenarios to generate a fair economic return and ensure sustainable production. Combined with current efforts on the sustainability of low-carbon conventional livestock farming, the decentralization of cultured meat production may allow farmers to produce meat without slaughtering animals, through the collection of biopsies and the feeding of stem cells in bioreactors (installed directly on the farm) with glucose derived from crops grown (barley, corn, potatoes or wheat) and harvested locally, together with amino acids and proteins, to ultimately produce burgers, croquettes or steaks.

How production funding would be used

In this new agro-zootechnical and regenerative agriculture context, farmers involved in the transition towards sustainable protein production could opt for two production options: conventional meat production, which involves animal slaughter, to produce cuts such as steak or fillet, which are difficult to obtain with current cell culture, and meat grown on the farm and therefore slaughter free with state funding, to ensure high volumes of minced meat starting from a minimum percentage of animals used as cell donors. In the Netherlands, where the RESPECTfarms project was born, more and more farmers are becoming interested in producing meat with a lower environmental impact, linked in particular to excessive nitrogen pollution.

But the theme of animal suffering also resonates among young farmers: “It is not necessary to slaughter cows, “And all the arable land I have, I can also use it to nourish the cells. Maybe I will have fewer animals, but I will be able to have many hectares to dedicate to production.”

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