Petri Dish Patties: What are they and are they the future?
In the face of a growing population and a declining climate, the unsustainably high environmental cost of meat has begun to be scrutinised. The need to make meat cleaner and review our methods of raising livestock is ever growing. But is the future of farming inside a lab?
Most noticeably, Silicon Valley has seen the need for and the opportunity in alternative sources of meat- £750 billion worth of meat is sold each year, and this figure is predicted to double by 2050. Alternative meat isn’t a new concept, as companies like Quorn and Linda McCartney Foods have been making vegan ‘sausages’ and the like for years but have yet to substantially disrupt supermarket shelves. With new technology and new funding, the production of ‘clean’ meat is about to start a whole new chapter. So, petri dish patties, are they the future?
Since its creation in 1985, Quorn has dominated the alternative meat market with very little opposition. However the times are changing as tech start-up companies begin to look in to the market. Their belief is that current methods of producing meat will not be able to sustainably continue into the future as the world’s population rises and demands more meat. As climate change and environmental hazards grow larger, this industry will come under increasing pressure from governments and consumers to change its ways. While Quorn have operated well in this space for the last 30 years, it’s not in the same league as what’s on the horizon. These relatively new start-ups are doing something different. They claim they are not making meat substitutes; they are actually making meat.
Memphis Meats' chicken burger and pork meatball
Companies such as Californian-based Memphis Meats and Israeli SuperMeat are borrowing breakthrough technology from biologists growing cells in petri dishes for medical ends, and replacing the human cells with those of animals. By taking a single muscle cell from the desired animal (beef, pork, chicken and duck have so far been grown successfully), putting it into a cultured environment and prompt the cell to replicate itself via incubation (a process not a million miles away from how Quorn is grown). Other than the original cell, no animal products are involved in the process and no animal has to die. Its environmental impact is incomparable to that of traditional meat production given there’s no farting, no watering, and no crop grown for feeding. Cells can be selected to ensure the meat grown is leaner, and the process cannot produce the excess fat normal cuts of meat often come with. More ethical, more environmental and healthier: so far, so good.
Yet this is not mere humanitarian goodwill on the part of the tech companies; they are predicting the demand for meat to continue its rise over the past few decades hand in hand with a growing, wealthier population. In short, they and their backers see profit here. Perhaps not in 2017 or 2018, but these guys are looking to the horizon, to 2050 and beyond. And up till now, their profit has likely been equally futuristic. Price has been their sticking point. A prototype burger was created, cooked and consumed in London back in 2013 costing £215,000 to grow. However fast forward 4 years and Memphis Meats aim to have their lab burger on supermarket shelves by 2021 , with predicted retail cost at around £11 for a ¼ pound burger . They still have a way to go to become a mass consumed food, but they are moving in the right direction. Fast.
Does cultured, clean meat have a future?
So they are environmentally cleaner, and this is likely to be their trump card going forward, but what challenges do clean meat producers face? A central concern to many will likely be the methods of production. Not only is it not natural, its meat is incredibly processed. What long-term health effects will such product have on our bodies? Is it safe to play God like this, or are we opening a Pandora’s box? The European opposition to GMO products stopped the big agriculture companies in their tracks, and it’s likely the same opposition will rally against clean meat. But if the environment decline and climate change continue on their course, will these facets of opposition continue to hold out?
These questions are yet to be answered, although overcoming the stigma of ‘non-natural’ is less and less becoming a significant obstacle. The distance between consumer and production is so great now days, if the price for such products is low enough then rightly or wrongly it is likely the consumers will follow.
For clarity, this is not the meat the best meat to eat. Given the option, traditionally reared, free range, high quality meat eaten less often but at the best quality is the best option available. However, if clean meat could make the price point, it could really change the fast food world. Fast food products, take a MaccieD’s Big Mac, are so far away from its source (probably a cow) that it does not carry a ‘natural’ perception to any great extent. At the moment of munching on said Big Mac one isn’t exactly in a wholesome, health conscious frame of mind. Cultured meat fits comfortably into the fast food world. While processed might not be desirable over British reared Red Tractor meat, fast food chains’ ingredients are often the worst for environmental and ethical standards, and the benefits by moving these outlets on to sustainably produced meat outweighs the potential negative implications cultured meat could potentially bring with it.
So, to answer the question ‘Will it happen in my life time?’- it depends on how old you are, but yes, if you can work a computer it’s more than likely petri dish patties will be coming to a novelty restaurant near you in the next 5-15 years. After that, its hard to predict, but changing the ways we produce meat will become essential and, so far, clean meat is leading the way.