January 12th 2023

Cell-cultured food… What is it?

BY Isabel Putinja

Kaila Katherine

Cell-cultured food is currently a hot topic as we search for sustainable solutions to our over-dependence on animal agriculture. But what is it exactly? Basically it’s meat or another type of animal product grown in a controlled environment in labs using cells taken from living animals. This technology is called “cellular agriculture” or “cell culture technology”.

We often hear the term “lab grown” to describe meat produced in this way, but there are many others floating around, for example: “clean”, “cultivated”, “cell-cultured”, or “cell-based” meat. In any case, cell-cultured meat is exactly the same as that from an animal that was raised and killed for food, because the cell cultures were taken from the animal.

Lab Grown Steak, photo credit Gunseli Yalcinkaya
Lab Grown Steak photo credit Gunseli Yalcinkaya

Producing animal products in this way is not only cruelty-free, it’s also eco-friendly, and sustainable. It would minimize problems like the deforestation of land for cattle rearing, the contamination of water bodies and land by animal waste, and over-fishing. Cellular agriculture could also tackle food security issues due to climate change.

We also know that animal agriculture is one of the biggest causes of greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, making lab grown meat uses a lot of energy and also creates emissions, but compared to farmed meat, it’s likely to produce much less, and definitely use up less land and water resources.

There are other advantages. Since cell-cultured meat is grown in a controlled environment, it could lower the risk of food-borne illnesses. And let’s not forget the antibiotics and hormones fed to farm animals, which is linked to antibiotic resistance. Fewer antibiotics, hormones, and chemicals in lab grown meat would probably be welcome by meat-eaters.

Cultivated Beef from Mosa Meat, photo credit Redwan Farooq
Cultivated Beef from Mosa Meat, photo credit Redwan Farooq

Though cellular agriculture seems like the way forward and the most realistic way to take action for the environment, and for animal rights, at the moment it’s still nascent. At this stage, producing lab meat is expensive, but this is expected to change once it’s scaled up. Also, we still have some way to go when it comes to public perception and consumer acceptance of this technology. But once you consider all the pros we outline above, it seems a no-brainer.

But things are moving fast. In 2020, Singapore was the first country to approve lab grown chicken for the consumer market, specifically chicken breast and nuggets produced by Good Meat, a subsidiary of US-based Eat Just. And more recently, in November 2022, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the commercial sale of cell-cultured chicken by Upside Foods, a company in California.

Foie Gras, photo credit JUST
Foie Gras, photo credit JUST

Though chicken was the first cell-cultured food to be made commercially available, work is in progress to produce beef and fish, but also eggs and milk for the consumer market. TurtleTree is a company in Singapore currently developing a cell-based milk alternative, while US-based Because Animals makes cell-cultured meat products for pets.

We already have many plant-based alternatives to animal products, and as we’ve seen, cellular agriculture is gaining ground. Currently there’s a third option, called fermentation-enabled or precision fermentation. This is a technique that’s already used to make animal-free rennet and insulin and involves taking microorganisms such as yeasts to produce a specific protein, such as fats, milk or eggs through a fermentation process. Perfect Day is an American-Indian start-up using this same technique to make milk protein.

Essentially, the fact that technologies like cellular agriculture and precision fermentation exist means that there’s no real need to breed, raise or kill animals for food. Not only does this seem revolutionary, it’s also an obvious win-win on many levels: for animal lovers, for meat-eaters, for the planet, and for the animals themselves.

Kaila Katherine

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