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Industrial animal farming is killing the planet. Is cultivated meat the solution?

If the 20 largest meat and dairy companies were a country, they would be the world’s seventh largest greenhouse gas emitter. But it’s not just CO2 that’s the issue. The industrial animal farming sector is responsible for increasing antibiotic resistance in humans and animals, spiralling deforestation, water contamination, mass extinctions and pandemics. It has cleared 30% of the world’s land once covered in wildlife and is destroying our soil’s critical capabilities to suck up CO2 and produce nutrient rich food.

And yet, meat consumption is on track to rise 75% by 2050. China, alone, this year will have consumed 20 million tonnes of meat and dairy. And if this trend continues, with no intervention, we are looking at the end of life on Earth.

 

cattle farming intensive meat production aerial imagery

An industrial feed yard in Texas where cattle are penned and fed intensively. Photo by Mishka Henner

 

But it would be naive to assume that the world can abandon meat. Instead, alongside drastically reduced meat consumption, alternatives to industrial meat farming must be urgently found, developed and promoted.

In addition to regenerative agriculture – a type of farming that conserves and rehabilitates nature – cultivated or “clean” meat could prove to be a key part of this rescue mission.

Didier Toubia is the CEO of Aleph Farms, one of the biggest players in the booming business of cultivated meat. By 2022, the company hopes to be the first in the world to have real cuts of meat — beef steaks — grown from the cells of cows, in restaurants.

The Israeli start-up, which has been operating since 2017, has so far received over £10 million ($13m) from investors, one of which includes the largest supplier of ground meat in the world, Cargill.

So how does it work?

From regenerative medicine to beef steaks

Technology originally designed to regenerate human tissue is being used by Aleph Farms to grow cells from cows. But it’s not a simple technology transfer. Although the basic principles are the same, this isn’t just about growing animal tissue. It’s got to look, taste and smell like real steak.

In the animal’s body cells die and are born all the time. The same occurs in humans. We regenerate our own body every few months and build new muscle tissue to replace old ones 24/7.

Aleph Farms replicates this process, but instead of the cells naturally regenerating inside the animal, the company creates an ideal environment for them to grow on the outside. “We’re kind of an extension of the animal, continuing the process which started in the animals but in this case it’s for growing meat,” says Toubia.

Cow cells are obtained from a nearby dairy farm through a process that doesn’t harm the animal. The start up hopes to have their own non-dairy cows as they expand, which will never go to slaughter. The cells are then grown in a cultivator, which simulates the internal conditions of the animal, replicating pH, CO2 and O2 levels. Cells then multiply, grow and form a muscle tissue in the same way as they would naturally.

Saving resources

With just a few cells, Aleph farms claim they “can produce almost an infinite amount of meat, with a fraction of the resources and no need for antibiotics.”

Instead of keeping an animal for two to three years before it’s killed, the company can make the steaks in just three to four weeks, with no waste and little resources. Compared to industrial farming, this kind of meat cultivation uses 90% less water and 99% less land. And soon it will be carbon neutral. By 2025, Aleph Farms aims to be “the first and only company in this space” to be zero carbon.

 

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We are kidding ourselves if we think our current system of meat production is benefitting us or our environment. Photo by PEXELS.

 

The product’s nutritional composition can also be fine tuned. For the short term, the meat will have same nutritional composition as that from a slaughtered animal. But in the mid to long term, the company might improve the nutritional profile, making the cuts of meat “healthier, and reducing the amount of sat fats and cholesterol as well as amplifying the vitamins and good ingredients,” says Toubia.

Road to market

There are several hurdles to cross before the first cultivated meat reaches consumers. Beyond producing large enough quantities to bring down costs, there’s a minefield of regulatory approval processes and labelling requirements to get through. And there is still disagreement on what this category of meat should be called, if indeed it should be labelled “meat” at all.

Toubia believes the price should be the same as slaughtered animal meat within three to four years from full commercialisation, although consumer acceptance remains their most important issue. Initial research shows this issue is improving. According to Toubia, “when you tell consumers that the food is also non GMO, acceptance skyrockets. It goes up to 90% of people who are ready and willing to switch to cultured meat when they understand it’s not GMO.”

Red and white wine

Toubia envisages a world where there will only be two types of meat on supermarket shelves: cultivated meat and meat from regenerative farming. This isn’t too far-fetched a concept.

 

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“What we see in the marketplace is a big pressure to revert from industrial farming. We see this in the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy and Biodiversity strategy. There’s a big push towards less intensive agricultural practices and promoting a reduction in conventional meat consumption and finding alternatives,” according to Toubia, adding:

“We see ourselves as an alternative to industrial farming, not extensive farming. Cultivated meat and meat from regenerative farming will probably be like red wine and white wine; two different types of wines, both are wines, but with a different set of attributes and different value propositions for the consumer.”

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