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By Roger Highfield on

Could lab-grown meat cut greenhouse emissions?

The potential impact – and acceptance – of replacing traditional farming with laboratory-grown meat is assessed by Science Director Roger Highfield.

Meat production has more than tripled over the last 50 years and the EU has predicted global demand will continue to rise by 1.4 per cent every year, as a result of the rising populations and higher incomes in developing countries.

Now cultured meat is being grown by companies worldwide with a view to slashing the impact of industrial livestock production on the climate and ecosystem crises, as well as providing cleaner, drug-free, and cruelty-free meat.

Among them is a Scottish start-up company which is now supplying companies across three continents with the specialised cells, the seedstock’ that can be cultivated to form various kinds of meat.

The cloned cells are being supplied by Roslin Technologies, a spin-out from the University of Edinburgh with links to the Roslin Institute, which famously reared Dolly the sheep – the world’s first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell.

In the wake of the world’s first lab-grown beefburger in the Netherlands, served up in 2013 at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars, companies have been studying how to grow cells in bioreactors.

The world's first cultured hamburger cooking at a news conference in 2013.
The world’s first cultured hamburger cooking at a news conference in 2013. Credit: World Economic Forum

The hope is that lab-grown meat offers a more sustainable alternative to livestock farming, a key cause of deforestation to make way for pasture; a way to cut emissions such as methane, high water usage and nitrogen production; sidesteps animal welfare issues; and can cut the use of antibiotics, which can spur the rise of superbugs and antibiotic resistance.

Ernst van Orsouw is chief executive of Roslin Technologies, which sees this as a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to create a new food category, so long as it can be made ‘safe, nutritious and affordable.’

From a handful of companies experimenting with meat cultivation in 2015, there are upwards of 150 today, including major meat producers, with an estimated investment of around $3 billion to date, according to van Orsouw, adding that companies, investors, NGOs, academics, scientists, and entrepreneurs in the UK recently launched the Alternative Proteins Association.

The technique that is used by Roslin Technologies to create these cells is the one that, ironically, took over from the cloning method developed at the Roslin by Sir Ian Wilmut, Keith Campbell, and a large team.

Developed in Japan in 2006 by Shinya Yamanaka, who went on to share a Nobel prize, a handful of factors are used to ‘reprogram’ an adult cell – from adult cattle, sheep and pigs – to make it embryonic again, creating a so called iPS cell (induced pluripotent stem cell) that can multiply to form any kind of tissue, from fat to muscle, (hence ‘pluripotent’) in the right conditions.

Each species requires a slightly different approach to generate iPS cells and the bulk of research done to date has focused on mice and humans.

The Roslin is the first to create ‘high quality’ iPS cells from food animals suitable for cultivated meat, notably pork, beef, lamb, and chicken, he said. ‘We want to empower producers across the globe to use this technology – we are the first to do this globally.’

Importantly, the Roslin technique does not genetically alter the DNA of the cell, which would raise various ethical and regulatory hurdles.

One of these iPS cells can multiply to fill around a litre after 42 days and an Olympic-sized swimming pool after 62 days. ‘Wait one more day, and we have two swimming pools. The power of cell replication is tremendous.’

The alternative is to take fat or muscle cells from a biopsy or an animal in the meat processing system, though these cells have a limited life, and it is difficult to predict how much meat you can make from one biopsy, he said. By comparison, Roslin’s self-replicating cell lines do not require any more use of animals, self-renew predictably, and are more efficient.

However, there are myriad technical challenges, from finding the right conditions to get the right cells to perfecting flavour, texture, and form for a diverse range of foods, with some using 3D printing techniques to shape them.

Firstly, products will need to be thoroughly vetted and approved by food standard authorities before they can be widely sold – encouragingly, ‘chicken bites’, produced by the US company Eat Just, have been approved in Singapore.

But the cost of scale up and production must also be dramatically reduced to make the foods viable for mass consumption – and this could take another five years, he estimates.

Roslin Technologies, with Agronomics, has created a joint venture, Good Dog Food, that is expected to be the first cultivated meat to reach the UK market, in the form of pet food.

With perhaps the British sausage in mind, the company expects the first wave of human cultured cell food products in the next few years to typically be up to 20 per cent iPS cell based and to achieve efficient scale up, they need to make efficient use of the expensive cocktails of nutrients and growth factors used to grow the cells.

A study published last year found that between 8 to 40 litres of media are required to grow each kilogram of meat, depending on the method.

Consumers can expect the first lab-grown offerings to include the likes of burgers and sausages with more premium and ‘structured’ products such as steaks and sushi emerging later. Perhaps one day it might be possible for people to grow their own steak at home, with a fillet steak typically taking around 45 days, he added.

A recent report commissioned by the Science Museum Group revealed that relatively low awareness that around one third of total greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to the food system.

Though replacing conventional cattle farming with ’labriculture’ – meat grown in the lab – has been widely touted as a way of reducing this environmental impact, the degree to which this can be done very much depends on the details of the methods and energy sources used, according to the LEAP (Livestock, Environment and People) programme at the Oxford Martin School.

Moreover, the Science Museum Group report showed that, from the choice of nine approaches to the emissions problem, eating insects, lab-grown meat and genetically modified organisms were the least popular across the three countries, as they raised more challenges about uncertain benefits, costs and ethics.

‘Naturalness is a hurdle to overcome, but such adoption problems have been overcome in the past with introductions of new technology. It requires thoughtful communications and alignment with consumer values,’ said van Orsouw.