Cell-based meat may soon find its way to your plate

Clean meat: The first cell-cultured hamburger was cooked and tasted live on air in London in 2013.  

It has long been a staple of science fiction — utopian and dystopian alike. Its development was predicted by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill back in 1931. And by 2020, cell-based meat may finally make its way to an Indian laboratory — and ultimately to Indian dining tables as well.

The Maharashtra government and the Institute of Chemical Technology signed an agreement with U.S.-based non-profit Good Food Institute this week to set up a Centre for Excellence in Cellular Agriculture. GFI India is scouting for ₹50 crore-worth of funding to set up a lab at ICT by the end of 2019, and also build a greenfield facility for the research centre in the next two years. By early 2020, it expects to begin offering taste tests of meat grown in the lab from samples of animal tissue.

Churchill’s prediction

“We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium,” wrote Churchill, in his 1931 essay Fifty Years Hence. His prediction may have been a few decades off, but researchers and entrepreneurs across the world have been scrambling to make it a reality over the last decade.

The first government-funded research on this kind of lab-grown meat began in the Netherlands in 2005, and culminated in August 2013, when the first cell-cultured hamburger was cooked and tasted live on air in London. The burger’s price tag? A whopping €250,000.

Mark Post, the Dutch pharmacologist behind the development of that burger, went on to co-found a company named Mosa Meat to develop commercial production methods to bring cell-based meat to the dining table at more affordable prices. Several dozen other companies across the world have also joined the race to bring the product to the marketplace.

Proponents of the technology list several benefits. The meat is slaughter-free and aims to bypass the problems of modern factory-farming, whether the objections of cruelty to animals, infections of salmonella and e coli, or meat injected with multiple doses of antibiotics.

Environmental benefits

“Apart from the health benefits to the consumer, the environmental benefits are immense. Going by our current research, the performance of cell-based meat is an order of magnitude better than traditional meat when it comes to land use and water use,” says Varun Deshpande, managing director of GFI India, which promotes both plant-based and cell-based meat. “It’s a far more efficient production process. Today, to produce one calorie of chicken flesh, the bird is fed nine calories of input. And chicken is the most efficient meat to produce.” GFI is in the process of doing a full life cycle analysis to get a comparable figure for cell-based meat, and to combat recent research claiming that the technology may not be as environmentally-friendly as previously thought.

He hopes the research centre being set up in Mumbai will spur Indian researchers, entrepreneurs and funders — including traditional meat companies — to take the process forward to create products not only for the ₹20,000-crore Indian meat sector, but also the trillion dollar international market. “We envision a new global food system, one which is better for people and the planet. India could become the base for this global transformation,” said Mr. Deshpande.

He admits that several hurdles remain. The science is still a work in progress, especially the effort to find a suitable serum and a cell culture medium which are stable, standardised and not dependent on live animal products. There needs to be a regulatory framework in place to test, regulate and label such foods, and initial discussions have been held with the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India.

However, the biggest unknown is the matter of public opinion. Will the Indian consumer be willing to taste test meat that has never been an animal? A study soon to be published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems claims that surveyors “found significantly higher acceptance of clean and plant-based meat in India and China compared to the U.S.”, according to the article’s abstract.

Meanwhile, the big debate is on what label will most appeal to the consumers.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2021 8:43:43 AM |

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