Can you swallow the idea of lab-grown meat?
The notion of ‘growing’ a steak in a test tube sounds like science fiction. But our food habits change
Journalist: Gillian Tett
This month I met Joshua March, a young British entrepreneur who dreams of disrupting our idea of “meat”. Specifically, he is working with biochemist Jess Krieger to cultivate animal flesh in laboratories for mass consumption.
Yes, you read that right. Since time immemorial, humans have thought of “meat” as something natural, an animal that ran around before it was killed and cooked. But Krieger has spent the past six years working at Kent State University in Ohio, growing individual chunks of meat in a lab.
They have now created a start-up, Artemys Foods, to mass-produce their wares. “We’re on a mission to empower humanity to eat sustainably,” March told me over a breakfast of avocado toast and old-fashioned natural bacon in New York.
“We believe the only way to change how the majority of people are eating meat is to be able to give them real meat — without the negative consequences caused by growing actual animals, whether impact to the environment or animal welfare.”
Krieger adds: “Plant-based meat gets some of the way [to remove meat from the diet] . . . but it will never be able to fully replicate the sensory experience of eating a really great piece of meat. [This technology] creates this, with the same or better nutrition. Eventually, eating meat from actual animals will be seen as an archaic practice only carried out by a minority.”
Artemys is not the first to experiment with cultivated meat. In 2013, the world’s first lab-grown burger, created from cow cells by a scientist at Maastricht University, was eaten at a news conference in London. Mosa Meat, the company created in the wake of that project, recently received investment from a US venture capital fund to help bring the product to market.
The question for all entrepreneurs in this area is whether consumers can swallow the idea. When I originally heard about lab-grown meat, my first thought was “yuck”. The idea of “growing” a steak or chicken leg in a test tube sounds like a scene from science fiction, not haute cuisine. But, on reflection, I realised that my reaction was also somewhat odd or, at least, inconsistent.
Many of us already consume ultra-processed or modified foods that could be considered “unnatural”, such as packet soups, reconstituted meat products or sweets like bubblegum. If you look at how our attitudes towards food have already changed, it is clear that they are grounded in culture more than nature.
Half a century ago, it was assumed that it made sense to use as much science as possible in food. In the 1950s, some considered white bread and other processed foods to be superior to the unrefined variants.
Later, frozen ready meals were seen as sophisticated. Indeed, when scientists created genetically modified crops, this was hailed by many as a brilliant “green revolution”, since it promised to raise agricultural yields.
But then came the backlash. Since the turn of the century, a trend for more natural, organic food has grown, with consumer protests in Europe against GM food. More recently, vegetarian and vegan diets have become popular, not just due to health and animal welfare concerns, but also because scientists have noted the contribution of livestock to global carbon emissions.
Companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have developed plant-based alternatives that are fast gaining traction. Indeed, the trend is so strong that even traditional meat businesses, such as Tyson Foods, are getting involved.
At this week’s World Economic Forum’s meeting in Davos (buzzing with chatter about plant-based start-ups), the organisers told local catering services that “protein must be served in reasonable portions” of 120g-140g. One day of the conference has been designated entirely meat free.
There is an irony here: even as plant-based alternatives to meat become trendy, they are arguably making food less “natural” and less “organic”. Impossible’s non-meat “burger”, for instance, uses complex chemical processes involving yeast to replicate the molecules found in meat.
What is peculiar — if not contradictory — is that the rocketing sales of these meat-like products somehow reinforces the idea that consuming “meat” or a pretend version of it is inevitable for humans; which, of course, is something the vegan movement was created to contest.
Given all this, I no longer think cultivating “real” meat in a lab is weird. Admittedly, it won’t be easy for some consumers to accept, particularly if they’ve spent the past decade buying organic. “A vocal minority of people in the west are still concerned about [genetically modified food],” admits Krieger.
However, as she points out, attitudes are shifting. “We now have a generation of consumers who have grown up with technology infusing all areas of their life [and] younger generations especially are concerned about how the foods they eat contribute to climate change.”
Of course, nobody knows whether Artemys can actually commercialise these bold ideas — or see off the numerous other start-ups looking to ride this “green” wave.
The key point is this: given that our attitudes towards food have already fluctuated in the past half century, there is no reason to think they will not alter significantly again. What seems utterly weird one day has a strange habit of becoming so normal that we never notice how our cultural assumptions have changed.