The Maastricht University professor behind the €250,000 lab-grown burger, which was unveiled at a public event in London two years ago, spoke at the IFT trade show in Chicago this week about the viability of cultured meat from technological, cost, and ethical perspectives.
“I think it’s pretty realistic to assume we can do this,” he said.
He said it would be difficult to ask a burgeoning global middle class to refrain from eating meat altogether. However, if lab-grown meat were more widely available – at a reasonable price – people may find it harder to justify killing animals for food.
“We are very capable of cognitive dissonance. We know that an animal has been killed for it and we accept that because we have no alternative, but if we do have an alternative, you can’t do that anymore,” he said. “…I think for consumers, animal welfare is going to be a decisive criterion.”
Indeed, the quest for in vitro meat has gained support from the animal rights group PETA, which offered a $1m prize to the creator of commercially viable in vitro chicken meat in 2008 – a prize that hadn’t been claimed before the deadline in March last year, although researchers have made headway in the area.
“Of course, humans don’t need to eat meat at all,” PETA said. “…But because many people refuse to kick their meat addiction, PETA wants to help them switch to flesh that doesn’t cause suffering and death.”
What about the €250,000 price tag?
Post told IFT delegates that according to cost modelling, lab meat could feasibly come down in price to a less eye-watering $65 per kilogram once the technology has been scaled up – and even further in the long term.
Currently, Post’s team is culturing meat on a very small scale, in a 1.5-litre bioreactor, but he said the aim was to scale up production to massive 25,000-litre bioreactors. “We know exactly the parameters we have to tweak to get that price down,” he said, adding that the researchers were in the process of setting up a company to do just that.
Large-scale production of cultured meat still faces challenges, however, including reproducing the fat cells in meat – and possibly even finding a way to produce omega-3 fatty acids to improve its health profile. The original lab-grown burger was coloured with red beet juice and other ingredients to replicate the red colour of meat, as the original fibres were still yellow, but Post said the research team had since found a way to stimulate myoglobin expression – which creates the pink colour of meat – under low-oxygen conditions.
The research team also aims to remove reliance on blood products used in the growth medium to improve its sustainability and reduce animal inputs. Compared to raising cattle, Post claims that using a growth medium based on salt water algae could cut land and water use by 90% and energy use by about 60%.
“We also need to make sure people will eat it because otherwise there’s no point,” he said.
“First it needs to be more efficient than a cow, then it needs to be internally sustainable. It needs to mimic meat because we are a society that loves meat, not meat replacers.”
The ‘yuck factor’
Critics of the technology repeatedly have asked whether people would actually consume meat produced in a lab – or whether the ‘yuck factor’ might ultimately prevent its success.
Post said: “That’s something that time will heal, that if you have people who are early adopters and will eat something that’s coming out of the lab then it will become more accepted….Kids don’t even blink and ask ‘when can we try it?’”
Market research has been reasonably positive, with 63% of Dutch people saying they are in favour of lab-grown meat.
Referring to hotdogs as an example of a product that people have become used to eating, even if they might find the production process unappetising, Post said: “What’s interesting is that people don’t know what’s in it, but more interestingly they don’t want to know what’s in it.”