The old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg, takes on new meaning as scientists advance lab-grown, or cultured, meats.
Earlier this spring, San Francisco-based Memphis Meats announced the successful production of clean poultry developed from animal cells. This announcement in March, surprising to many in the general public, actually comes as part of a long-running move toward mass production of protein sources for human sans the traditional agricultural process. In February 2016, the same company rolled out the world’s first lab-grown, cultured meatballs, and more is on the way according to executives.
“It is thrilling to introduce the first chicken and duck that didn’t require raising animals. This is a historic moment for the clean meat movement,” said Uma Valeti, M.D., co-founder and CEO of Memphis Meats. “Chicken and duck are at the center of the table in so many cultures around the world, but the way conventional poultry is raised creates huge problems for the environment, animal welfare, and human health. It is also inefficient. We aim to produce meat in a better way, so that it is delicious, affordable and sustainable. We really believe this is a significant technological leap for humanity, and an incredible business opportunity — to transform a giant global industry while contributing to solving some of the most urgent sustainability issues of our time.”
For a nation whose citizens each consume an average of 90 pounds of chicken per year, this is nothing to cluck at. Even before the production of the world’s first cultured beef patty in 2013, futurists have been predicting these innovations for decades. And while at present, costs remain in the developmental stage of thousands of dollars per pound, investors around the world have good reason to suspect those will come down in time. Whether livestock producers have reason to worry or not depends on any number of factors, but the question of what’s driving a technological revolution unrivaled since the Neolithic Age 10,000 years ago remains front and center.
Quantum shift in technology
Stemming from developments in nanotechnology, food scientists are taking stem cells from live animals and using proprietary cell cultures of oxygen, sugars and minerals to make them grow inside bioreactor tanks. According to information provided by Memphis Meats, the group has learned by trial and error how to determine which of the harvested cells are capable of self-renewal, and which cells produce flavor, textures, and aromas. The process takes between four and six weeks before the meat is ready for harvest. A similar process is being utilized by Perfect Day Foods, which produces cow-free dairy products using proteins obtained from milk.
In theory, the volume of food that can be produced in this manner is as limitless as the number of cells available for growth. This technological leap rivals that of ancient peoples learning to create hybrid plant species and fertilization techniques. Memphis Meats reported its cost to produce the first runs of cultured poultry to be in the neighborhood of $9,000 a pound, obviously higher than an average cost of $3 per pound for traditional chicken breasts. But as with all things manufacturing, those per unit costs are expected to fall dramatically in coming years. The company plans to launch a commercial line of products in 2021, just four years out.
Pioneering this innovation was a Dutch scientist, Mark Post, who in 2013 produced the world’s first lab-grown beef burger, a 5-ounce patty grown from cow stem cells. With financial backing from Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Post’s work took four years to complete and produced a $332,000 burger, topped with copious excitement within the scientific community. Brin, with a net worth exceeding $30 billion, is among the tech investors also interested in space travel, Mars exploration, and asteroid mining, all of which would be helped greatly by human’s ability to grow unlimited volumes of beef, dairy, and poultry aboard space ships and other planets devoid of Earth’s natural resources.
In the meantime, other investors are likewise interested in the Earth-bound market, noting that the U.S. consumers spend $90 billion annually on chicken alone. China’s 1.4 billion citizens consume more than 6 billion pounds of duck annually.
The many shades of Green
In addition to the potential financial return on investment, both Valeti and Post note the ecological drivers prodding their innovations. As reported in Issues in Science and Technology, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization lays considerable blame on the traditional farm and ranching operations of Earth for water scarcity and greenhouse gas emissions, attributing livestock as the cause for 18 percent of annual anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, 8 percent of water withdrawals, and 30 percent of land usage. Researchers predict cultured meat could reduce energy usage anywhere from 7 to 45 percent, with 78 to 96 percent reducing in greenhouse gasses. Brin, in an interview regarding Post’s work in beef, credited the potential environmental impact as being as much a driver as the financial.
“There are basically three things that can happen going forward. One is that we all become vegetarian. The second is we ignore the issue and that leads to continued environmental harm, and the third is we do something new,” he said.
Valeti likewise plugs his cultured meat products as being a more humane manner in which to consume protein sources, hoping to bring in potential converts from the vegan community, and Perfect Day markets its milk products as both “sustainable” and “animal-free.”
In the meantime, government officials are ramping up regulatory agencies to govern production of foods in unchartered territory. While genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are currently regulated in the U.S. under the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology published in 1986, even the most recent updates were made in the 1990s. The idea of cultured meats simply wasn’t a concern in a time before emails and smartphones.
The speed of expectation
While traditional agriculture producers have a few years to go before products such as these become more commercially available, reason for discussion is as present as the question of regulations. The means of producing food have remained much the same on Earth since prehistoric times, but that could soon be changed forever. What impact this will have on all business agricultural remains to be seen not only in terms of meat itself, but the crops which feed livestock and equipment needed for both. But if hi-tech investors have their way, the age-old conundrum of chickens and eggs could some day be a mystery of the ancients to future children.