Is cultured meat a threat or an opportunity?

Commodity watch by policy officer, Daryl McLaughlin.

Cellular agriculture is the production of agriculture products from cell cultures using a combination of biotechnology, tissue engineering and molecular biology to create and design proteins, fats and tissue that would otherwise come from farming. The most common cellular agriculture concept is cultured meat.

The cultured meat concept has been in development since the early 2000’s. The first commercial sale of cell cultured meat occurred in December 2020 in a Singapore restaurant. Some people believe that more use of cultured meat products in the future will be necessary to build a carbon natural future. However, many hold concern that a reliance on technological process is fundamentally unsustainable and could have massive impacts on the socioeconomic model. Many believe that it would slow down the economy, restrict its expansion and that it is just used as a greenwashing operation.

There is a massive amount of food wasted across the world, in 2019 it was estimated that around 17% of food grown in the world was wasted. We all need to think more sustainably about what we eat, how it is produced and what sort of impact it has in terms of climate change. There are currently 790 million people in the world that do not have access to enough food. The global population stands about 7.7 billion and is predicted to grow to about 9.8 billion in 2050. Therefore, additional protein will be required to feed the extra 2.1 billion people. So, we do need to think globally and holistically.

There are some potential benefits of cultured meat. These include land use reductions, water reductions, greenhouse gas reductions, energy use reductions, diversity and increase food production with reduced reliance on location, new and value economic opportunities. Some farmers believe that there are opportunities for agriculture, that cultured meat will leave a stronger unique selling point for grass-fed livestock. Some believe that there is an opportunity for farmers to supply some raw materials and possibly an opportunity for on farm production.

However, many farmers and red meat suppliers hold many concerns in relation to the likes of carcass balance, mass culls of livestock, grassland abandoned, huge impact on rural economy, consolidating power, impact on nutrition and health.

The Royal Agricultural University (RAU) in Gloucestershire has started a two year programme looking at cultured meat and farmers. It will be asking farmers what they think of cultured meat, then how modelling farm business might fare if cultured meat become part of consumer diets. This week the RAU held an online discussion to explain what culture meat is, what are the risks, opportunities and threats. This webinar was chaired by Abi Kay Deputy Editor Farmers Weekly with speakers from RAU, University of Bath, Illtud Dunsford, CEO, Cellular Agriculture and Evan Roberts a farmer. Ulster Farmers’ Union representatives attended the webinar and were able to give their views on cultured meat and the threats that it could bring. There were concerns raised about labelling as well as the carbon footprint of culture meat products. Food safety concerns were also raised from farmers.

The project has been awarded funding by UK Research and Innovation as part of its Transforming UK Food Systems Strategic Priorities Fund Programme. The research team combines leading experts in cultured meat, technical specialists from academia and industry, and experience in farmer centred innovation. The project has been developed with farming organisations, cultured meat businesses, food companies, charities and government, who will continue advising the research.