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You could soon order 100% lab-grown meat

Cultured meat, which does not involve heavy use of antibiotics or pesticides in animal feed and hormones for fast growth of poultry, could be the future of food

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Meat is a matter of life and death in India. Ask Mohammed Akhlaq. You can’t because the 52-year-old was lynched by a mob on the outskirts of the national capital in 2015 over suspicion of butchering a cow and consuming beef. Two years later, a group of about 200 vigilantes killed 55-year-old dairy farmer Pehlu Khan in Haryana, accusing him of transporting cattle for slaughter. And there are scores of other cases in recent years of violence linked to killing and consumption of animals, some considered sacred by zealots.

Science can’t, sadly, treat fanaticism—but it might just render our passions irrelevant. The answer could be ‘lab meat’. Powered by advances in the field of biotechnology, the future of food may lie in lab-grown, cell-based meat. The process begins with collecting muscle tissues of animals from which stem cells are isolated. These stem cells are allowed to multiply dramatically which then differentiate into muscle fibres under a controlled environment. Several companies are working towards producing hamburgers, meat items, poultry, seafood and fish products derived from muscle tissue grown in a laboratory.

In March, Shiok Meats, a Singapore start-up, unveiled its first-ever cell-based shrimp dumpling at the Disruption in Food and Sustainability Summit. Shiok, founded by stem-cell scientists Sandhya Sriram and Ka Yi Ling, is the first cultured-meat start-up accepted into the prestigious Y-Combinator cohort. Last month, Israeli firm Aleph Farms secured $12 million in funding to build ‘bio farms’, which can produce lab meat. The start-up also claims to have developed a technology that can grow all four elements of the meat—muscle, fat, blood vessels and connecting tissues.

While lab-grown meat is still work in progress, plant-based “alternate meat (alt-meat)” already has the world licking its lips. Impossible Foods, a California-based company, is riding this wave with a recent funding of $300 million at a valuation of $2 billion. Its competitor, another California start-up, Beyond Meat, had a sizzling IPO at Nasdaq recently, raising $240 million with the valuation touching almost $3 billion. Wall Street and investors are betting big on alt-meat. But what is the level of consumer acceptance?

Burger King announced a limited run of its Impossible Whopper (plant-based alt-meat) at 59 restaurants in and around St Louis, Missouri. After a phenomenal response, it plans to roll out the product nationwide by the end of this year, making it the first fast food giant to enter this space.

The success stories of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have, in a way, laid the foundation for the mainstream entry of lab-grown meat. Though there is much excitement among vegetarians and vegans, it could be hard to convince a traditional non-vegetarian to make the switch to alt-meat burgers. The plant-based meat also does not address one of the biggest pain points of the meat industry: it still relies on traditional agricultural practices, where the only difference is that instead of rearing animals, you are growing certain types of plants.

This is where the new-age lab-grown meat scores higher. It has been touted as “clean meat” and “environment-friendly” by proponents as it does not require land for grazing, growing fodder, etc. This is a big problem in South America, particularly Brazil, which has lost a fifth of the Amazon rainforest in the last three decades. Some reports attribute about 70% of this deforestation to cultivation of cattle. Livestock also accounts for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. Given the limitation and pressure on land, lab-grown meat has strongly positioned itself as an alternative to the traditional meat industry.

The ‘slaughter-free’ and ‘cruelty-free’ tags associated with lab-grown meat also appeal to many. Traditional meat involves high levels of antibiotics, usage of pesticides in animal feed, usage of hormones for fast growth of poultry, etc. all of which have become ticking time bombs. Lab-grown meat could defuse some of these challenges. However, the molecular reductionism associated with ‘cellular agriculture’, another name given to lab-grown meat, is unappealing to many. For instance, one can argue about the nutritional aspects of meat grown through production assemblage. While there may be environmental benefits to lab meat, where some even claim this to be one of the solutions to global warming, one cannot ignore the socio-economic costs. The meat industry in every country employs millions of people and is a great economic driver in terms of jobs. What happens to them when the production moves to a controlled environment?

The lab-grown meat may also face challenges similar to the ones faced by Genetically Modified (GM) crops. Consumer acceptance, mostly in terms of safety of such a food, could encounter resistance. In fact, there are still no guidelines on the sale of such meat products and the US Food and Drug Administration has decided to take up the matter this year.

So, how much does it cost? The price is hard to stomach. Aleph Farms’ steak goes for Rs 3,500 ($50), which is cheaper than the first burger produced by this method in 2013, costing a whopping Rs 2 crore ($300,000). The technology has seen rapid advancement and some experts feel the cost will be on par with traditional meat in six to eight years. In India, The Good Food Institute and the Institute of Chemical Technology Mumbai plan to create the world’s first government research centre for lab-grown meat. Also, India’s Department of Biotechnology granted Rs 5 crore to two Indian institutions, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology and National Research Centre on Meat. This indicates the government views the development of such technology as a way of ensuring food security in the long term.

Nitish Sathyanarayanan is a scientist-turned entrepreneur in the biotechnology space

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