Connect2Innovate Special Part 3 - Would you eat lab-grown meat for dinner?
by Daniele Guido, Writer
Lab-grown ‘clean meat’ is gaining traction as an economical and environmental alternative to farmed meat. We take a closer look at some of the start-ups involved and whether the reality will live up to the hype.
Science Entrepreneur Club and Clustermarket are collaborating with Merck Accelerator to help innovative start-ups in the fields of Clean Meat, Bio-Sensing and Interfaces, and Liquid Biopsy Technologies to pitch their projects. The first of a series of ‘Connect2Innovate’ Meetups took place in London on the 24th of July and saw two start-ups pitch their clean-meat projects, competing for a ticket to attend the Pitch Night on the 18th of September. Three out of the six finalists of the Pitch Night are clean-meat start-ups: Highersteaks, CellulaRevolution and Cellular Agriculture. The winners of the Pitch Night come away with a cash prize, a Sigma Aldrich voucher for laboratory supplies and a golden ticket to the Merck Accelerator selection days.
Clean meat, also named cultured or in-vitro meat, is produced in a laboratory by engineering-based cellular agriculture, using a small number of cells harvested by biopsy as a starting material. An alternative possibility would be to create genetically modified cell lines that can serve as a source of cell indefinitely. However, this risks the final meat product being classified as a genetically modified organism, opening a minefield of undesirable regulatory and procedural complications, not to mention potential hesitancy from buyers.
Another issue to be faced by any clean meat product will be establishing whether to consider it a product of animal origin or as a processed product, due to the low number of cells used compared with the culturing media. Harvesting cells from an animal and the commercialisation of clean meat will require the approval from national and international authorities, such as the department for environment, food and rural affairs, the animal and plant health agency and the food standards agency. Moreover, scientists are still trying to optimise the techniques used to grow cells in a lab, and implement them with animal-free media and synthetic scaffolds.
Clean meat brings with it hopes of a more economical, ethical, eco-friendly and accessible alternative to traditional farming mechanisms, but these must be qualified. What is its environmental impact compared with the livestock industry? How expensive is its production? How will it be regulated and by whom?
A number of studies have used hypothetical models to assess whether clean meat has the potential to reduce water, energy and land use, and greenhouse gas emissions relative to the livestock industry. In a 2011 study (1, 2), Prof. Hannah Tuomisto and collaborators from the University of Oxford suggested that clean meat could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, land and water use by 78–96%, 99% and 82–96%, respectively, depending on which meat production it is compared with. However, energy consumption fell by only 7–45% for clean meats relative to farming practices apart from poultry, which would still use less energy than clean meat.
Meanwhile, however, a study (1, 3) by Dr Carolyn Mattick at the University of Texas suggested that, despite a decrease in land use, the energy required to produce clean meat might have a greater global warming impact than poultry or pork, although still less than beef. In a 2015 study (1, 4), Dr Sergiy Smetana compared clean meat with plant-based, fungus-based and dairy-based alternatives and reported that clean meat had the highest negative impact on a series of environmental categories. Terrestrial and freshwater ecotoxicity, and land use were the only exceptions. It is clear that the environmental profile of clean meat compared with poultry, pork and other meat alternatives must be improved. Dr Martina Miotto, founder of CellularRevolution, suggested during our Connect2Innovate Meetup that a better approach might be a balance of both clean meat and meat alternatives, such as plant-based, fungus-based or diary-based ones.
And then there’s cost. The first clean-meat hamburger ever tasted cost around €250,000 to produce. Mark Post, a vascular biologist at Maastricht University and one of the minds behind this burger, said that he could now make a hamburger of 140 gr for €500. Prof. Shulamit Levenberg recently presented the first prototype of lab-grown steak with a cost of $50. Technologies that lower the price of clean meat are clearly improving, but further innovations are necessary to make grown-lab meat more accessible. During our meeting in London, Benjamina Bollag, CEO and co-founder of Highersteaks, another startup in the field of clean-meat, said that they are aiming to have a product made with animal-free media and without the use of genetic engineering on the market in the next three to five years.
Clean meat is still at an early stage and may hold great potential to bypass or lessen some of the key issues of the livestock industry, such as animal welfare, global warming, and water and land use. However, we still need further advancements in the technologies used to produce any meat aiming to decrease the amount of energy required and, further down the line, mechanisms to implement and communicate to the public safety and regulatory issues. For these reasons, Merck’s experience and backing is key to this pitch campaign to help novel start-ups fuel their advancements and hopefully find a solution to make clean meat more accessible and eco-friendly.
The Science Entrepreneur Club (SEC) is a non-profit organisation of curious minds that aims to explore and unite the life science ecosystem by educating, inspiring and connecting. We give scientific entrepreneurs a network and a platform to showcase their innovative technologies, find investors and accelerate their company.