With the unsustainable demand for meat still rising, chief scientific officer for Australian cultured meat company Vow, Dr James Ryall, looks at the complementary process cultured meat can be in helping secure Australia’s future food supply.
In 2021, the global production of meat reached a record high of 350 million tonnes, contributing nearly 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Americans and Australians – among the largest meat consumers per capita – are driving this unsustainable demand with both consuming over 120kg of meat per year.
Our planet simply doesn’t possess enough habitable land to support such a diet. To exacerbate matters, we anticipate an additional two billion mouths to feed over the next 30 years.
This equation doesn’t add up – we lack sufficient land to produce enough food for everyone. However, the solution is not telling people to stop eating meat. Meat holds a significant place in our society and culture so telling people to give it up isn’t an effective way to affect change.
Despite the introduction of plant-based alternatives like Impossible and Beyond, meat consumption continues to rise for a simple reason – meat is an incredibly nutritious source of protein, and it’s delicious!
To address these challenges, we must find new ways to create meat that consumers love.
At Vow, we envision a future where meat is produced in manufacturing facilities powered by renewable energy, with a small footprint located near urban areas to reduce transportation emissions.
And the exciting part? This technology already exists – it’s called cultured meat, and it is currently available in restaurants in Singapore and (as of August) the US.
Cultured meat 101
Cultured meat is real meat, created sustainably and ethically from animal cells.
It starts with a small tissue sample from an animal, no larger than a small almond. From this sample, we can isolate the various cells that make up meat, including muscle, fat, and connective tissue, infusing it with the flavours and aromas we love.
These cells are then grown in large bioreactors, resembling the fermentation vessels found in breweries. The cells thrive in a nutrient-rich liquid, containing sugars, vitamins, amino acids, proteins, and fats.
Once harvested these cells can then be used to create any number of meat-based products.
Cultured meat has often been classified as a “complementary” protein, but this isn’t entirely accurate. Cultured meat is made up of cells that are indistinguishable from their animal counterparts.
So, rather than considering cultured meat as a “complementary” protein,it is more accurate to suggest that cultured meat is a complementary “process” of producing animal-protein.
Challenges and misinformation
As with any new industry, first-movers are often reluctant to share information, believing this will negatively impact their commercial advantage.
Unfortunately, this often creates an information vacuum rife with misinformation and untruths.
To make matters worse, the lack of real-world data means that any published research is often based on outdated and incomplete information.
Recently, we have seen some of the worst impacts of this information vacuum through the publication and propagation of a preprint article purporting to report on the lifecycle analysis of cultured meat.
To understand the potential environmental impacts of their products, companies will often conduct a systematic analysis of the entire life cycle of the product, an LCA, which looks at the environmental impacts of production, including all upstream (suppliers) and downstream (waste management) phases.
Oftentimes, when performing an LCA, researchers need to make assumptions, especially when seeking to model the environmental impact of a new technology into the future.
Making assumptions in data modelling can quickly reveal and magnify our internal biases. Importantly, the information vacuum described above requires many more assumptions which quickly compound and can render the final data almost useless.
In May this year, a preprint study led by food scientist Derrick Risner at University of California, Davis, concluded the global warming potential (GWP) (kg of carbon dioxide equivalent, CO2-eq) of cultured meat was “four to 25 times greater than the median GWP of retail beef”.
This headline number was then picked up and shared through popular news sources around the world.
Unfortunately, the authors of this study relied on two key (incorrect) assumptions: (i) that cultured meat companies would use only pharmaceutical grade inputs; and (ii) that the maximum achievable density of biomass (g/L, a measure of process efficiency) was <4g/L.
Starting with the first assumption: pharmaceutical grade inputs.
If you believe nothing else about the cultured meat industry, believe that reducing the cost of inputs is everything.
All cultured meat companies are looking for ways to reduce the cost of production, and relying on pharmaceutical grade ingredients is simply not financially viable.
Food grade inputs can be used, which effectively balances purity, safety, and cost.
Already, several growth factor companies have started producing food-grade compounds – greatly reducing the cost and environmental impact, while maintaining sterility and safety.
The second assumption is perhaps even more egregious. By assuming that the maximum efficiency of cultured meat is <4g/L, the authors have concluded that 250L of liquid media is required to produce 1kg of cell mass.
This number is well below the numbers achieved by cultured meat companies, and even below what has been reported by large pharmaceutical companies looking to produce antibodies and vaccines (>10g/L).
Numbers as high as 350g/L have been reported in the literature (under the right conditions. Given that every number in the LCA report is corrected back to “kilogram of animal cell-based meat”, this further inflates many of the reported numbers.
While it is easy to be critical of the authors of this study, this is a symptom of a broader problem – an absence of real world data.
This is not a new problem nor is it unique to cultured meat, almost every new industry has experienced a lag between the innovations happening behind closed doors, and the benchmarking data available to academics and other interested parties.
Cultured meat is an energy intensive process, there is no denying this fact. How this energy is produced will play a large role in determining the overall environmental impact of this new industry.
With energy produced from renewable sources climbing to over 35 per cent of all electricity generated in Australia in 2022, cultured meat appears to be a great way to supplement Australia’s protein production in a sustainable manner.
As first-movers in the industry look to build trust with consumers and start to embrace transparency and data-sharing, we can debunk misinformation and pave the way for a sustainable and inclusive food system.
This article first appeared in the August-September edition of Food & Drink Business magazine.