I tried lab-grown meat – food made from animals without killing them

It was a moment of confrontation for a vegetarian. First a pork patty and then bacon slices balanced in a sort of mini BLT were served for the meal by the sparkling, waiting hosts. The meat even came from a named pig, a kind-looking pig named Dawn.

With some trepidation, I sliced ​​the meatball and ate it. Then I took a bite of bacon. It was my first meat tasting in 11 years, a confusing experience made possible by the fact that Dawn, gambling in a field in upstate New York, did not die for this dish.

Instead, a stack of cells was grown in the lab to create what’s known as “cultured meat,” a product that’s touted as much better for the climate and the deadly concerns of pigs and cows, and is poised for take-off in the US. .

“A harmless sample from a pig can produce millions of tons of product without having to raise and slaughter one animal at a time,” said Eitan Fisher, founder of cultivated meat producer Mission Barns, who invited the Guardian for a taste test. in a luxury Manhattan hotel. Meatballs were succulent, bacon crispy, and both had an undeniable meat quality, even for a vegetarian.

“We got this sample from Dawn, and she’s living freely and happily,” said Fisher, who has identified a “donor” cow, chicken, and duck for future cultivated meat varieties. “As people turn to consume these types of products, this industry will certainly be transformative for our food system.”

Mission Barns, one of nearly 80 startups based in San Francisco’s Bay Area, is currently scrambling for the position after one of its numbers, Upside Foods, became the first company in the country to gain approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in November. An important step in allowing the sale of cultivated meat in the United States.

A diner shoots video of a dish containing a nugget made from lab-grown chicken during a media presentation in Singapore.

A diner shoots video of a dish containing a nugget made from lab-grown chicken during a media presentation in Singapore. Photo: Nicholas Yeo/AFP/Getty Images

More than $2 billion has been invested in the industry since 2020, and most startups don’t wait for regulatory approval before building facilities. In December, a company called Believer Meats laid the groundwork for a $123 million plant in North Carolina that it claims will be the world’s largest planted meat plant, and will produce 10,000 tons of produce once operational.

The ever-grown meat—the new industry that takes that name instead of lab-grown or cellular meat—has only begun to be sold in Singapore, where another Bay Area competitor, Eat Just, was greenlit in 2020 to sell chicken breasts and tenders. But “the world is experiencing a food revolution,” in the words of the FDA, the barbarism of factory farming with the rise of cultivated meat that holds the promise of protecting livestock as well as reducing the meat industry’s devastating planet-heating emissions and curbing its voracious appetite for land.

“We know we can’t really meet the targets in the Paris climate agreement without addressing meat consumption, and we think alternative proteins are the best way to address this,” said Elliot Swartz, a cultivated meat scientist at the Good Food Institute (GFI). ), envisions a sort of “all of the above” approach in which cultivated meat, plant-based offerings like Impossible burgers, and simply giving up on pork chops and steak help soften the impact of the growing and potentially disastrous, global meat appetite.

Raising and slaughtering livestock is responsible for more than half of the greenhouse gas pollution of the entire food sector and is estimated to contribute to about a third of total global emissions on its own. Faced with the need to reach the “meat peak,” cultivated meat was pushed forward as a solution as it could reduce emissions by around 17% for chicken and by up to 92% for beef, the heaviest meat on the planet, according to GFI’s research. found.

Meanwhile, large tracts of land, most of which have been deforested for grazing and are vulnerable to outbreaks of zoonotic disease, could be freed if meat is grown at the 30,000-square-foot facility operated by Mission Barns instead. Eating something that hasn’t been fed plenty of antibiotics also attracts the public, according to the company’s research.

“The production process is more efficient, you have significantly less feed material to expel the same amount of calories, and you have a great opportunity to restore ecosystems and slow biodiversity loss,” said Swartz. “It provides a way to alleviate all these tough, sticky global challenges.”

A report released last week identified the rise in plant-based meat alternatives as one of three “super-overflow points” that could trigger a cascade of decarbonisation across the global economy, alongside the increase in electric vehicles and green manure. According to the report, a 20% market share by 2035 would mean that between 400 million and 800 million hectares of land will no longer be needed for livestock and feed, which is equivalent to 7 to 15% of the world’s farmland today.

Cows are fed in a cattle pen in a feedlot.

Raising and slaughtering livestock is responsible for more than half of the greenhouse gas pollution of the entire food sector. Photo: Reuters/Alamy

This challenge is particularly acute in the United States, which is the world’s largest producer of beef and chicken and the second largest producer of pork; This is a country where meat-eating is deeply entrenched either because of ingrained habits or the absence of available, affordable alternatives. The American eats, on average, more than 260lb of meat each year, this figure seems to be rising.

An exciting but fleeting craze for Impossible and Beyond Meat underlined America’s desire for real meat rather than plant-based imitations. “A lot of people in consumer studies say, ‘I’m not eating that plant thing, I don’t care how good it tastes,'” Swartz said.

According to Fisher, Mission Barns, which hopes to get its own FDA approval soon and has a range of bacon, meatballs, and sausages ready to distribute, aims to “appeal to people who love to eat bacon and love to eat meatballs.” He has been a vegetarian for over ten years. “Whether consciously or unconsciously, we crave and desire the flavor of animal meat. Plant-based alternatives almost mimic them.

“But for those who want the real taste, I think giving them real pork is definitely the right way to go. If we want something that tastes like bacon, it won’t be enough to just take a piece of tempeh and call it bacon.”

Since launching in 2018, Mission Barns has launched a public relations blitz while developing its product, gathering information and raising money for regulators (investors invested $24 million in a “pilot facility” in 2021). A spacious kitchen that looked like home on the TV show set hosted lawmakers and potential customers (Steny Hoyer, a prominent Congressional Democrat, was a big fan of bacon), and a handful of outlets have agreed to stock their produce when they’re ready. approved for sale.

Most burgeoning cultivated meat startups have some kind of niche—companies aiming to sell lab-grown sushi-grade salmon or bluefin tuna or even fois gras—and Mission Barns is one of those that has achieved efficiency by growing animal fat instead of more. laborious and costly muscle and tissue. Proteins and oil to which spices are added are created through cells growing in robust bioreactors that replicate an animal’s growth.

Used mostly by the biopharmaceutical industry to produce drugs, the use of these cultivators poses a problem for cultivated meat because they more typically produce small batches at high cost, whereas the food industry requires this equation to be reversed. It cost $330,000 to create the first lab-grown burger in 2013, and while there are improvements, the price tag remains a barrier to quickly scaling production to rival the traditional meat industry in the short term. Eat Just has a chicken wing that it said cost $50 to make in 2019, but its prices have now dropped.

Because meat production has to replicate the heating and cooling of an animal, this process can be energy intensive, requiring operating on a renewable-heavy grid to avoid increasing emissions. But beyond the practical hurdles, the beginning of cultivated meat raises broader questions. Will the public see any reason to switch to this newly formed flesh? And will this change the concept of what it means to eat ethically?

The target audience for cultivated meat may be meat eaters at least once a day to help them transition to a more eco-friendly option without giving up meat altogether, but the meat’s exit from the lab raises philosophical questions for vegetarians.

If you don’t eat meat for animal welfare or climate reasons, what happens when these issues are removed from food? How important is being a vegetarian to such values, beyond the act of eating meat? I thought of this as I was dealing with some kind of sticky, greasy feeling in a mouth not used to eating meat. Others are less contradictory.

“I totally plan on eating this thing when it’s more available in the US,” said Swartz, who has been a vegetarian for the past four years. “People don’t quit meat because it tastes bad, there are other reasons. I think we’re going to need a new word like cultivar or something like that.”

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