Commentary: Lab meat sceptics, please just get out of the way
Europe is doing it again, stigmatising scientific innovations that will be crucial to our future food supply, says Amanda Little for Bloomberg Opinion.
NASHVILLE, Tennessee: Italy’s right-wing government provoked immediate controversy when it proposed banning the production of lab-grown meats to "safeguard our nation’s heritage". The farm lobby cheered, scientists protested, and the conflict began to sound eerily akin to Europe’s protracted battle over genetically modified crops.
I could only think: Here’s another hugely promising technological frontier stymied by false claims and misguided public scepticism.
The Italian parliament should proceed cautiously as it deliberates over whether to approve the ban. Members should heed the objections of European scientists who warn against inhibiting crucial research and development at a time when cellular agriculture is finally poised to hit the global mainstream.
A CLIMATE-SMART FUTURE PROTEIN SUPPLY
Recent breakthroughs are moving cultured meat products closer to commercialisation in the United States, Europe, and Asia, and making it possible for this technology to protect - rather than harm - food heritage and human health. Before Italy pillories this new frontier, let’s set the record straight: Cultivated meats have enormous potential to become the foundation of a humane, healthy, climate-smart future protein supply. Neither Europe nor the global business of food can afford to cast them aside.
Especially considering the enormous cost of the conventional meat industry: Livestock now accounts for nearly 15 per cent of all global greenhouse gasses, and more than a third of the Earth’s land is used to raise and feed the tens of billions of animals consumed globally every year.
I understand full well that it’s hard to get anyone excited about meat produced in a lab. I was a sceptic, too, before I did my research and eventually ate the stuff myself (a juicy, delicious, 57g duck breast harvested fresh from a bioreactor). It doesn’t help that kitschy new products are emerging such as the “woolly mammoth meatball” recently produced from ancient DNA by an Australian startup - a cool idea in theory, but ill-timed at a moment when cultivated meats are misperceived by many as “Frankenfoods”.
Cultured proteins are in fact a serious solution, not a silly experiment. I’ve argued before that cellular agriculture can help stabilise the climate, transform land use, improve human health and protect food security. The data underscores this potential.
One European study found that cultivated meat production requires about 40 per cent of the energy use of conventionally farmed meat, produces about 85 per cent lower greenhouse gas emissions and consumes 90 per cent less water than conventionally farmed meat.
POTENTIAL TO PROTECT FOOD HERITAGE
Scientists can now grow every kind of popular protein - be it heritage chicken or wagyu beef - starting with a small sample of muscle and fat cells removed in a biopsy-like procedure from a live animal.
These products are not only radically less wasteful and more humane, they’re identical at a cellular level to meats harvested from animals and have notable human health advantages: They can reduce the risk of heart disease with healthy fats, and completely circumvent the threat of bacterial contamination (such as E coli) in slaughterhouses, along with the risk of zoonotic diseases.
The cultivated meat industry is growing fast: According to a recent report from the Good Food Institute, 156 companies now produce cultivated meat and seafood worldwide, up from a few dozen in 2020. Nearly US$3 billion has been invested in these startups, with about a third of that sum committed in 2022.
And here’s how cultured proteins can in fact protect food heritage: They require about 99 per cent less land to produce and, at scale, can free up valuable terrain for the production of craft meats and regenerative farming - traditional methods of livestock production that are climate-smart but also land-intensive.
The long-term vision is not that cultivated meats will entirely replace animal-based meats, but liberate more land for livestock and poultry production to be done right.
SUPPORT NOT STIGMATISE
The success of this emerging industry is by no means guaranteed - many hurdles remain. The production process needs to be significantly scaled and costs must be sharply reduced.
The ingredients also need to be fine-tuned: Currently, cells are brewed in an expensive nutrient broth that enables them to grow, but which requires animal inputs. An affordable, vegan version of this broth must be developed.
Production methods also need improvement: Muscle and fat are still grown separately and combined at the end to form the final product, processes that could be integrated to improve texture.
This is precisely why more research and development are necessary, and why Italy should do its part to support, not stigmatise, this industry.
When the European Union forbade GMO (genetically modified organism) agriculture decades ago - with restrictions that remain in place today - it deterred crucial research. And look where this ban has gotten the EU today: Even Italy now imports vast amounts of GMO soy annually.
What Italy’s government seems to be missing is that it’s climate change, more than any other factor, that’s threatening Italy's food heritage, shifting what’s possible to grow where: Which wine grape can be produced in Tuscany for a good Chianti; which heritage-breed pigs can be raised in what regions for Prosciutto di Parma.
We have entered an era of disruption and adaptation that is understandably painful for the food-nostalgic, but unavoidably necessary.
In the long term, lab meats will prevail one way or another. Near term, the Italian parliament should encourage European scientists to improve, not complicate, the global effort to scale this food frontier swiftly and responsibly.