An intriguing concept is being posed by researchers in Australia: The future of artificial test-tube meat products might be as an alternative to the ‘economy’ end of the marketplace.
It’s getting tiring wading through never-ending media reports salivating over the prospects of lab-cultured “meat” gaining commercial — and culinary — acceptance. The former will happen long before the latter, I predict, and in reality test-tube teriyaki and petri dish patties are still decades away.
Even the scientist at the center of all the curiosity, Prof. Mark Post of Maastricht University in Holland, who produced the world’s first stem cell shamburger in 2013 at the cost of $316,000 and now claims he can produce the same item for only $15, admitted at a recent Australian beef industry conference that the technology to make artificial meat a viable industry would take 20 to 30 years.
But reporters just can’t help themselves with their breathless coverage of what is consistently characterized as a “revolution” in meat production, with advances in the process predicted to deliver the taste, mouthfeel and eating satisfaction of real beef, pork and chicken.
It all seems a little too sci-fi for me, but an interesting twist on how the technology of artificial meat might impact the market was advanced in a recent study in the February issue of the Journal of Integrative Agriculture: Under this theory, steaks, chops and other middle meats would be relegated to the premium end of the red meat category, with artificial meat supplying the higher volume, lower cost segment of the category.
That’s the conclusion of a review that examined potential impacts of in-vitro, cultured meat and plant-, fauna- and fungal-based meat alternatives, including genetically modified livestock and commercial cloning.
Sarah Bonny, a professor at the Murdoch University School of Veterinary and Life Sciences in Western Australia, told the ScienceNetwork online that while artificial meat “isn’t likely to revolutionize how we eat any time soon,” conventional meat production cannot be expected to meet future demand.
“With estimates of the global population reaching nine billion in 2050, the meat industry would need to increase production by approximately 50 percent to 73 percent,” Prof. Bonny said, explaining that projections suggest that absent any substantial change in productivity, the global meat industry would reach capacity just trying to feed eight billion people.
That shortfall, coupled with concerns about animal welfare and the environmental impact of livestock production, could position artificial meat as acceptable to meat-eating consumers.
Money the missing ingredient?
However, Bonny acknowledged that there are serious issues to be overcome, not the least of which is financing.
“Making [artificial meat] viable will require commitment and investments from both governments and industry,” she said, adding that commercial in-vitro meat production would create new technological challenges, including designing sterile environments on a scale never before attempted. There are also health unknowns, she noted, such as potential biological mutations that could occur over time.
Those hurdles could likely be cleared, if enough funding is poured into the project. But a larger challenge less amenable to throwing cash at it is consumer acceptance, even if the pseudo-steaks churned out of the meat labs of the future end up getting ground into taco filling.
“The first [alternative] products likely to generate strong competition for conventional meat are substitutes manufactured from plant or insect proteins, as they have the lowest barriers to commercialization,” Bonny said. “They are likely to enter the market in the lower quality burger-sausage sector, where the division between real and artificial is already blurred for the consumer.”
Ouch. Tell that to Bruce Aidells or Mike Satzow.
Insect burgers aside, here’s the bottom line to the journalistic dust devil swirling around test-tube technology as a means to feed the world. In another article in the same issue of the Journal of Integrative Agriculture (“Educated consumers don’t believe artificial meat is the solution to the problems with the meat industry”), Bonny wrote that, “A large majority of the respondents [in a survey of 817 adults] believed that the meat industry is facing important problems related to the protection of the environment, animal welfare or inefficient meat production to feed humanity.
“However, respondents did not believe that artificial meat will be the solution,” she wrote, adding a bit awkwardly that, “Only a minority of respondents (5 percent to 11 percent) would recommend or accept to eat in-vitro meat instead of meat produced from farm animals.”
There you go. There’s your 5 percent to 10 percent of the population that represents the entire market segment for vegan foods, organic produce, test-tube shamburgers and whatever else technology trumpets as a better-for-you “solutions” to the perceived problems of meat production.
Bonny closed her summary of the future of meat alternatives by stating that, “The future of artificial meat produced from stem cells appears uncertain at this time.”
In a mere 20 to 30 years, we’ll find out just how right she was.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator