Commentary: Is lab-grown meat a new frontier or a passing fad?
For a small island state like Singapore, the foray into lab-grown meat makes a lot of sense, says RSIS’ Paul Teng.
SINGAPORE: This week, Singapore made global headlines by being the first country in the world to approve a lab-grown meat for general public consumption.
Eat Just, a San Francisco-based company, will soon debut its “chicken bites” here, which feature meat developed from animal cells in laboratories.
This comes on the heels of recent news of Singaporean company Shiok Meats being the first in the world to culture lobster meat and before that, shrimp meat, in the lab. And another local startup, TurtleTree Labs, has won awards for its lab-grown milk.
Is Singapore the bellwether of a new disruptive industry?
Millions of startup investment dollars, both in Singapore and other developed economies like the US, have been poured into developing lab-grown meat (also known as cultured or cell-based meat) with its proponents showing a passion that seems to match that seen during the dot com era.
The alternative meat market, on the whole, was worth US$14 billion in 2019 – just one per cent of the US$1.4 trillion global meat industry. But Barclays estimates it will grow ten times its size to US$140 billion by 2029.
ALTERNATIVE PROTEINS IN SINGAPORE
Tissue culture from plant and animal cells is not in itself a new technology, and the former has been used to produce high yielding clones of economically important crops like rubber and banana.
But tremendous advances in molecular science, cell culture technology, bioreactor engineering and food science make it possible to assemble cells into tissues which resemble the meat from slaughtered animals.
Singapore’s high standards for regulating food safety are well-recognised, and is probably a factor behind Eat Just’s decision to launch their product here.
In the food industry, it is important for authorities to employ “science-based” and “transparent” criteria and processes to regulate new or novel foods.
Lab-grown meat further aligns closely with the “Singapore Food Story”, an initiative by the Government to strengthen the country’s food security. One of its major thrusts is to encourage innovation in alternative proteins at home.
With limited land and water resources, Singapore’s potential to improve its food self-sufficiency is to rely on technology-enabled farming and culturing meat in bioreactors.
Both are akin to growing food in traditional agriculture systems, albeit using less space and capitalising on the country’s high technological capabilities.
These reasons have provided the impetus for Singapore to move its agriculture into controlled environments, such as vertical vegetable farms.
WILL LAB-GROWN MEATS GAIN TRACTION?
Climate change also adds significant pressure on food systems, which may accelerate the foray into lab-grown meat globally.
The livestock industry is a major source of greenhouse gases, uses much water and land, and is pollutive when animal excreta is left untreated.
Animals are also inefficient converters of plant material into protein.
The above on their own would form compelling arguments not to grow and slaughter animals for food. And this is before the ethical and sometimes religious reasons for not killing animals are considered.
Another argument is that lab-cultured meat is grown in sterile containers (bioreactors), with no use of antibiotics and no fear of passing on toxic bacteria. Eat Just said safety tests found its cultured chicken to have “extremely low and significantly cleaner microbiological content”, compared to traditional chicken.
While rural farming is likely to remain the main source of the world’s food, there is a movement to intensify efforts to not only make farming more sustainable but to develop alternative solutions that can feed the world.
STIFF COMPETITION AHEAD
Some may shun lab-grown meat because it’s a processed food – chemical and physical techniques produce the meat structure from cells.
But this is not enough to be a negative factor because much of what we consume today has also undergone some form of processing to preserve their freshness.
Its main competitor right now is plant-based protein which has shown exponential growth. Both have similarities as plant-based protein is processed using plant material as ingredients.
Plant-based protein companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have had commercially available products for over a year and have made significant inroads into the diets of both vegetarians and omnivores.
Restaurant brands are catching on too. On Nov 9, McDonald’s announced it will launch its plant-based meat alternatives line, “McPlant”, in 2021, after test running the “PLT” burger developed with Beyond Meat earlier this year in Canada.
Lab-grown meats will thus face stiff competition for market share.
PRICE AND NOVELTY THE LARGEST OBSTACLES
But perhaps the biggest obstacle to acceptance would be the combination of price and the novel nature of lab-grown meats.
While the cost of production inputs is still high, the anticipation is that this will be reduced through innovations resulting from multi-million dollar investments into lab-grown meat companies by both the public and private sector.
Eat Just, for instance, is currently raising at least US$200 million in what may be its last fundraising round, before going public at a US$2 billion valuation. Among its backers are Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-Shing and venture capital firm Khosa Ventures.
The bulk of Asian consumers are still price-sensitive when purchasing food, so lab-grown meat must provide compelling reasons for a switch from traditional meat, all things being equal.
Of course, the big unknown is how choices will be influenced when shortages in the meat industry arise, such as the culling of pigs due to ongoing episodes of African swine fever worldwide, and the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting exports and imports.
The other pushback may be more cultural. In Asia, particularly, food culture has strong historical antecedents in legacy dishes, where whole fish or whole poultry are served.
It would be difficult to imagine a lab-grown whole shrimp or chicken with current technology. It would also be difficult to imagine having one’s chicken rice with only chicken steaks or fish-head curry with only fillets.
But of course, there are food recipes which do not require whole chicken or fish.
History has demonstrated that culinary norms are changeable. The potato was a novel food brought to Europe from South America centuries ago. Its acceptance took a very winding path before its pre-eminence today in Western food culture.
WHAT CAN MOVE THE NEEDLE
For lab-cultured meat to mainstream as a meat item in the diet of mass citizenry, it will be necessary for key influencers to lend their support and for there to be public information campaigns.
Consumers may wonder why they should change, or worry about the risks. Arguments about cleanliness and safety commonly stand up well during periods of food insecurity, but are soon forgotten when the crisis is over.
For lab-grown meat to be sustainable, it must be economically viable, ecologically friendly and socially acceptable.
The economic viability as a mass market product has yet to be proven; its social acceptability is still untested, especially with respect to pricing and benefits. It is an ecologically friendly technology by some measures but by others, like energy use efficiency, remains to be seen.
What lies ahead for lab-grown meat will depend much on the future of the food and production systems that it seeks to replace.
If solutions are not forthcoming to deal with declining land and water resources, environmentally degrading effects of some modern farming systems, and climate change, then lab-produced food will increasingly make more sense.
For a small island state like Singapore, producing novel food and aspiring to be an innovation hub for it makes even more sense, in terms of economics and food resilience.
Even if novel foods like plant-based protein or lab-grown meat do not become mainstream protein, there is still enough growth potential in Asia for Singapore to create and capture sufficient value as an emergent industry.
Paul Teng is Adjunct Senior Fellow (Food Security) in the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.