Lab-grown food, once relegated to the space of science fiction, has now become a very real and feasible part of the future of food production and consumption.
Lab-to-fork has arrived
The pandemic has made all of us rethink our food choices, especially when it comes to meat consumption. According to Spoonshot, interest in meat consumption has dropped by 50% in the last one year. Even though consumption will pick up again, it won’t go back to pre-COVID levels, thanks to growing consumer interest in moderating meat consumption over health or environmental concerns.
Interest in meat consumption
This has paved the way for lab-grown meat. However, it is still very niche and most consumers may not be aware of what it is, how it would taste, what could be the price differential along with regulatory hurdles. The reality of lab-grown meat has seen innovation across different sectors to see what else can be grown in a test-tube.
What is lab-grown food?
This is food developed in labs but with the same texture and experience of the foods these are intended to mimic. They can be produced directly from animal cells or via microorganisms through the process of fermentation.
Cultivated meat, for example, is made by extracting muscle stem cells from an animal, growing them in a medium, and structuring them using bioreactors into desired shapes (like cuts of meat).
Animal-free proteins and dairy products can be made in labs with bioengineered microflora (like yeast) through fermentation techniques.
Drivers for lab-grown food
- Animal welfare – Interest in animal welfare has increased by 66% since 2018, in part because of growing consumer interest in how food is produced. Social media conversations linked to animal cruelty increased 15 times between 2019 to 2020, showing that consumers are increasingly worried about the treatment of animals.
Interest in animal welfare
- Climate change – An estimated 80% of global agricultural land is used to raise animals for food consumption and grow food to feed them. Animal agriculture accounts for an equivalent of 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, making this activity one of the leading culprits of man-made climate change.
- Food security – According to the World Economic Forum, the global population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, and the demand for food will be 60% higher than it is today. This is going to put the entire food ecosystem under tremendous pressure, as access to land will diminish. Lab-made food is an efficient way of producing food rapidly without putting more stress on water, land, and other resources.
Innovation in lab-grown foods
Here are some recent developments in the area of lab-grown foods.
Growing meat in a lab would mean using fewer resources overall, such as the approximately 1,800 gallons of water it takes to produce just one pound of beef.
In December 2020, Singapore became the first country in the world to allow the sale of lab-grown meat, and US company Eat Just launched its lab-grown chicken at a local restaurant. This cultured chicken can be created in just 14 days, around 70% less time than it takes to grow a real chicken.
A month earlier, a restaurant in Israel became the first ever to serve lab-grown meat, in the form of two burgers made of “crispy cultured chicken fillet”. These products were grown from cells by SuperMeat, which supplies the restaurant from its factory.
The cost of lab-grown meat is becoming increasingly more viable, with the production costs dropping from around USD280,000 for a lab-grown burger in 2013 to approximately USD10 in 2021.
Interest in dairy alternatives has increased by 667% since 2018. Companies are exploring lab-grown dairy alternatives for products like milk, cheese, and even ice cream. Such products have the potential to appeal to consumers who may want to enjoy real dairy products without worrying about the ethical concerns linked to factory farms.
Interest in dairy alternatives
Silicon Valley start-up Perfect Day launched a lab-grown ice cream in 2019. The company makes its dairy by genetically modifying microflora to produce casein and whey, the two main proteins in milk. It combines the dried proteins with plant fats, water, vitamins, and minerals to make a lactose-free product that has the same properties – taste, consistency, and nutritional breakdown – of milk. Perfect Day also has a yogurt line and offers its technology to be incorporated into others’ products.
Israeli company Remilk is making lab-grown milk and cheese. The company uses bacteria to grow casein, a key ingredient in cheese, thus allowing it to make a product that is vegan, lactose-free, and cholesterol-free but tastes and feels like the real deal. The taste and mouthfeel are features that plant-based cheese makers have struggled with.
Lab-grown breast milk
TurtleTree Labs, aiming to launch its breast milk this year, uses stem cells from volunteers to create mammary glands that can lactate. Biomilq is growing lactating human mammary cells in a bioreactor as the first step to producing breast milk.
Lab-grown breast milk has significant real-world implications for mothers who cannot produce milk or are unable to breastfeed for a whole host of reasons, but still don’t want to give their infants formula.
Coffee is one of the most consumed beverages across the world, and is also a victim of its own popularity. The surging demand is leading to significant deforestation, and the need for a sustainable solution has become urgent.
To combat this, Seattle-based Atomo has been working on creating a lab-grown beanless coffee and has even bagged an investment of USD2.6 million. The company has isolated the various molecular compounds from coffee and has replicated these in the lab to make a product that tastes and smells like real coffee.
Future of alternatives to meat
With increasing awareness of animal welfare and sustainable food production, more consumers are now open to alternatives to meat, dairy, and other foods facing scarcity. Research in lab-grown foods is increasing by leaps and bounds, making production scalability viable and prices for consumers more affordable, which in turn will make it mainstream faster than expected.
The science behind lab-grown food also will make it possible for companies to bring in a new era of customization, such as tailoring the amount of caffeine in coffee or the fat content of meat.
Lab-grown food will also provide solutions to “clean” protein alternatives, something that plant-based meat analogs will get called out for not having. With these innovations, we can expect to see farm-to-fork evolve to lab-to-fork.
FAQs about lab-grown meat
- Is lab-grown meat safe to eat?
- Lab-grown meat is more eco-friendly and eliminates the need for livestock or animals. This makes it safer to consume as it is produced in a sterilized environment.
- How lab-grown meat is made?
- Lab-grown meat is meat produced in a laboratory using cell culture of living animals cells. Scientists then feed and nurture these cells, so they multiply to create muscle tissue in controlled conditions.
- How much does lab-grown meat cost?
- The cost of lab-grown meat is becoming increasingly more viable, with the production costs dropping from around USD280,000 for a lab-grown burger in 2013 to approximately USD10 in 2021.
- Why is lab-grown meat so expensive?
- Lab-grown meat is made in a laboratory using cells from live animals. The process involves the use of a growth medium to stimulate cell growth. It is an expensive process for a small output of meat.
- Will vegans eat lab-grown meat?
- Lab-grown meat may not be suitable for vegans as the process includes using ingredients or cells which are derived from animals.
- What companies make lab-grown meat?
- What does lab-grown meat taste like?
- If the meat is formulated correctly, it should taste just like conventional meat.