Cultured meat: transforming the current food system
Updated: Jan 24
Written by Valeria Perales
Lately, the term cellular agriculture rings a lot in my mind. I mean, of course, I recently started working on this branch of biotechnology, but lately, the term is really sinking in.
Let’s take a few steps back and understand what it means. Cell culture and biomanufacturing technologies allow us to grow animal tissue derived from animal cells. In the same way, these technologies are capable of producing proteins from animal products such as eggs, gelatin or milk by genetically modifying bacteria or yeasts to synthesize them. So, cellular agriculture means the use of these biotechnologies to address problems that conventional animal farming entails, such as environmental impact, animal welfare and sustainability (Post et. al. 2020)
If you’re new to the subject, this branch of biotechnology will probably feel very futuristic to you… like seen in a movie. But, even if you’re an experienced reader, talking about cellular agriculture as a field and industry still feels surreal. Surreal not because of the tech that it implies, but surreal because it is finally happening. We are finally transforming the current food system. For centuries, we’ve been exploiting our planet to obtain food through farming and agriculture. At some point in human history one could say conventional methods were the only way and even sustainable because of the tiny world population. But, as our species grows in number, these methods have become unsustainable and unethical. Animal farming has become so industrialized and mundane that when having a piece of meat, most people don’t even stop and think about the industrial facility, filled with unequivocal abuse, where it came from. I will eventually talk about the environmental impact of animal farming in another post, but for now, I want to introduce you into the world of cultured meat.
Winston Churchill once wrote: “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium” (Churchill, 1931). He said synthetic food would be the future and although his predictions missed by a couple of decades, his vision was not far from our current reality. I asked our CEO and founder what cultured meat means to her. She said: cultured meat is a more ethical way of feeding the world.
Imagine yourself ten years from now, you’re shopping at your local market and you see a tray of fresh meat with a label that says “Animal cruelty-free product”. Cultured meat enables that possibility. Through cellular agriculture and tissue engineering technologies we are able to grow skeletal muscle tissue outside and without the animal. We can start with stem cells that are harvested from the animal’s muscle without sacrificing it. After isolating these cells, we culture them in a carefully controlled environment, providing them the adequate temperature, oxygen requirements and nutrients. In a meticulously designed process, we then allow the cells to grow, divide and differentiate into tissue that should be identical to the meat harvested from livestock (Mattick, 2018). For a detailed explanation of this cultured meat process please refer to Choi et. al. 2021.
I could bet that most readers immediately relate biotechnology with the pharmaceutical industry. However, long before we heard about insulin production in bioreactors, biotechnology kicked-off in the food system through the application of industrial fermentation. Just as the industrial revolution changed our manufacturing processes and the green revolution transitioned from conventional agriculture to high-yield varieties, the current biotech revolution is helping to transform our current food system in different ways. Now, through cellular agriculture, we have found a way to improve our planet’s quality of life by rendering cultured meat the possibility to overcome the atrocities that animal farming conveys.
There are still many unsolved challenges in the design of the cultured meat bioprocess. Although it is now a possibility and some products are even available in some countries, cultivated meat still needs to be more efficient and sustainable. Micro Meat is actually working on developing technologies that will make cultured meat production scalable, at the right price and the right time. It is a fact that cultured meat will be more sustainable than traditional animal meat production, and of course, a more ethical way of feeding the world.
Post, M. J., Levenberg, S., Kaplan, D. L., Genovese, N., Fu, J., Bryant, C. J., Negowetti, N., Verzijden, K. & Moutsatsou, P. (2020). Scientific, sustainability and regulatory challenges of cultured meat. Nature Food, 1(7), 403-415.
Churchill, W. L. S. (1931). Fifty Years Hence, Winston Churchill December 1931. America’s National Churchill Museum. Retrieved January 21, 2022, from https://www.nationalchurchillmuseum.org/fifty-years-hence.html
Mattick, C. S. (2018). Cellular agriculture: The coming revolution in food production. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 74(1), 32-35.
Choi, K. H., Yoon, J. W., Kim, M., Lee, H. J., Jeong, J., Ryu, M., Jo, C. & Lee, C. K. (2021). Muscle stem cell isolation and in vitro culture for meat production: A methodological review. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 20(1), 429-457.