It is everywhere on the streets, at bus stops and on the tube. You couldn’t possibly have missed the Go Vegan World campaign that has been taking over London since January. It uses provocative visuals and headlines as a way to encourage shifts in our eating habits and makes us reflect on the moral values of meat consumption.
Experts all agree that consuming meat doesn’t have an exceptional nutritional value, and that it could be easily replaced by other sources of protein. Nevertheless meat consumption is culturally bound, spanning different epochs and continents. Withdrawing meat completely from our diet, as suggest these provocative ads, is simply inconceivable. Ironically, with the growing population and decreasing prices on the market, the global meat demand will double by 2050. Winston Churchill once claimed “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” This forecast wasn’t completely out of line since in 2009 an emerging technology in the field of stem cell culture, “in vitro meat”, challenged our assumptions on the current ways we produce meat. It allowed the possibility to reconcile healthy, ethical and environmentally sustainable meat production. Up until now, culturing meat artificially was very successful in the lab. But the question on if and how cultured meat will replace current production of livestock meat, depends merely on the public acceptance of the technology and on the decisions that favour the establishment of its large-scale commercialisation framework.
Dr. Mark Post form Maastricht University and world pioneer in tissue engineering successfully created the first ever laboratory-grown beef hamburger. In 2013, it was publicly revealed at the occasion of a live-streamed public tasting in London.
Meat is naturally made of skeletal muscle fibres and can be artificially grown in a petri dish using “stem cells”. Such techniques are commonly used in regenerative medicine for repairing damaged tissues. The method is quite straightforward and requires taking a small biopsy sample of cells in a living animal, which then multiplies and grows into the exact same tissue as natural ones. In vitro meat technology could theoretically become a real substitute product for conventional meat. What would be the main consequences of eradicating animal farming and growing in vitro meat instead?
Large quantities of artificial meat could be produced with very few living livestock: “Cells taken from one cow could produce 175 million burgers. With our current farming practices it would take 440,000 cows”. Knowing that livestock account for 18% of the total green house gas (GHG) emissions and that the meat industry is a bigger polluter that the entire transport industry, cultured meat is a game changing technology in terms of its environmental impact. Scientists from Oxford University found that this artificial method would cut down emissions by 96%, save up water and land use. Many other advantages include the possibility to make the product healthier (nutritionally fortified), or to lower the manufacturing contamination risks. Finally, animal welfare is becoming an increasingly important criterion for consumers, thus the potential for sustaining our demand for meat but bypassing animal slaughtering, is a key outcome.
Scientists’ current priority is making this technology mimic our experience with conventional meat as closely as possible. Smell, colour, texture, taste are all factors influencing consumer’s experience with the product, but it can sometimes be tricky to reproduce these in a lab. For instance, cultured meat is grown in an oxygen rich environment making the tissue turn yellowish instead of being red. This touches on whether the public could accept and adapt to this technology even though it is slightly different from conventional experience.
The 2008 FSA-funded review of emerging food technologies didn’t present cultured meat as a technology that would be commercially practicable mainly for consumers’ acceptance reasons. Artificial food products have a polarised acceptance amongst the public: they can be regarded as safe, clean, and free from contamination or on the contrary seen as profoundly modified and unsafe. Adopting this product in a daily diet also conveys highly personal values, on sanctity of life for example, and thus is mostly destined to stay a very niche product. Nonetheless, polls were highly encouraging in terms of public support of the technology with an overall trend showing a public eager to try the technology. Yet, if it were to be commercialised, how to make sure that this positive attitude is effectively translated into a behavioural change of eating habits?
Public’s trust and acceptance of this technology is key to fostering engagement, only then can we ensure that the technology isn’t painted as silver bullet but not dismissed either. Up until now, despite positive research results, strong public health and climate case for this dietary change, the debate still hasn’t opened up and remains in the hands of experts. Other actors such as the meat industry, farmers or governments haven’t been involved. A private philanthropist initially financed the Dutch in vitro meat research group, but the Dutch government is staying uninvolved even though the group is now seriously suffering from lack of funding. While this mainly restricts public engagement at a bigger scale, governmental intervention in things such as dietary habits can be slipperier as it shows a direct interference to people’s personal choice, known as “nanny statism”.
Reflecting on the ways to effectively bring a transparent and public discussion around this technology, there are some lessons to be learned from the GM foods case. Mainly, that there are cultural differences for accepting artificial novel foods. Americans showed a much less sceptical acceptance of GM foods than in Europe. So, is Europe a good market for cultured meat? Last November the European Commission received a policy recommendation letter ratified by 24 EU members, pointing out the necessity to address the problem of “unsustainable consumption of animal-based food in the EU”. Nonetheless, the difficulty lies on the European regulatory approach for allowing new products on the market, which is mainly restrictive. It follows a precautionary approach making the EU market an unreceptive framework for opening a discussion amongst stakeholders.
A precautionary approach also naturally entails taking financial costs as a priority. Bringing a large-scale production framework for cultured meat is conditioned by the implementation of suitable manufacturing infrastructures: large-capacity bioreactors. Again, our experience with GM foods showed that this financial power is in the hands of Western multinational food companies. Knowing that the meat demand rises sharply in emerging countries where such financial power isn’t available, can commercialisation of cultured meat stay a meaningful solution? Does this commit cultured meat to empower the wrong party? Finally, there are also concerns about affordability of this product for consumers. Dr.Post claimed how it will certainly initially be considered as a luxury product, mainly reserved to those valuing the environment and animal welfare.
Overall, this range of social, regulatory and financial reasons mainly go against cultured meat’s initial aim that is to bring a global dietary alternative to conventional meat. Whether cultured meat will be available to some extent on the market is still unresolved. But the main question as to whether it should, must seriously be discussed among all actors.