There’s no sugar-coating the meat of the matter: Americans are eating more meat than ever before, and meat consumption around the globe is rising too. That means more wildlife habitat loss, more greenhouse gas emissions, and myriad other sustainability concerns. Many suggestions have been made regarding just how to stem this tide of meat that humanity is demanding, but another solution is simply to allow us to have our meat and eat it too.
Thanks to advances in cell culturing techniques, the prospect of at least supplementing animal agriculture with clean meat (real meat grown from animal cells) is no longer just a pipedream. The cells are supplied nutrients, and stimulated to multiply by the trillions, until they grow into full-fledged meat. (Not an alternative to meat, but actual animal meat.) Similar procedures are used in the medical field to regenerate organ tissues, according to Dr. Uma Valeti, cardiologist and CEO of clean meat producer Memphis Meats.
But clean meat is still a relatively new phenomenon, and the search for a perfect formula has long been challenged by the astronomical amount of funding needed to produce just a single edible portion. In 2013, a burger made of entirely clean meat cost for around $330,000; today, however, clean meat companies such as Israel’s Future Meat Technologies (FMT) are developing technologies that utilize affordable alternatives to the expensive, nutrient-rich animal serums once thought required for cell growth.
FMT aims to reduce the average price of clean meat from its current $800/kilo to $8 per kilo by the beginning of 2019. The company’s goal is to produce several tons of meat per week by the end of next year. Once that happens, FMT will offer its products–beef and chicken–at high-end restaurants, according to company founder and bioengineering professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Yaakov Nahmias. In May 2018, FMT received $2.2 million in a funding round led by industry titan Tyson Foods. In smart diversifying moves, Tyson also recently invested in Memphis Meats, as well as Beyond Meat, a maker of plant-based meat alternatives.
Manufacturing techniques differ between companies, however the FMT’s production protocol centers around mesenchymal cells–a special type of stem cell with the ability to replicate both fat and muscle tissue–cultivated in a recyclable growth medium. Other techniques involve using satellite cells that are limited to producing muscle, or even engineering cells to reproduce indefinitely, Nahimas said.
The key to clean meats’ market success, however, is to overcome what Kenneth Cook–president of The Environmental Working Group, –calls “the ick factor”: an innate reluctance to consume meat that didn’t come out of a slaughtered animal’s body. But attitudes may already be shifting, as a 2017 survey revealed that around two-thirds of respondents were willing at least to eat clean meat products, with one-third amendable to eating it regularly.
Complete acceptance will require a product that matches (or exceeds) conventional traditional meats in taste and texture, according to industry heads, but even partial acceptance could radically transform what agriculture looks like.
And it could just help ameliorate some of the biggest sustainability problems our species faces as meat demand continues to climb.