The Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation has called for a ‘transformation’ of agriculture to make it more resilient. It comes at a time when Government policies are increasingly damaging the UK farming and food production industries. In addition, Vladimir Putin is destroying Ukraine’s silo stocks and ripening fields of cereals and sunflowers – a major source of grain and cooking oil globally. Lab-grown meat has been touted as an alternative that could offer additional resilience, but questions remain over how commercially viable it is.
In the UK we are watching a decimation of our pig industry. The lack of process-workers has forced farmers to cull herds and plan for lower numbers, based on the volume of carcasses that can be processed into the food chain. We are seeing sheep and beef farmers potentially driven out of business by cheaper, lower quality imports, as new trade deals with Australia and others eventually come to fruition.
So, what could this mean for the consumers of East Anglia? Instead of fresh beef, pork and chicken from the fields of our region, in the years ahead, meat supply may lie, not be from the fields of our regional farmers and food producers, but in the hands of laboratory technicians.
Lab-grown “cultured” meat
The production of cultured meat appears to be a UK Government priority. It is grown from animal cells in a bioreactor, powered by 100% renewable energy, thus reducing both greenhouse gas emissions and animal cruelty .
The idea of cultured meat was first raised by Dutch researcher Willem van Eelen in the 1950s. Having suffered starvation as a prisoner of war during the Second World War, food security became a focus of his research.
In 2013 the first burger made from beef grown in a laboratory, was prepared in London, by chef Richard McGeown. It was consumed by food critics Hanni Ruetzler and Josh Schonwald. The burger took two years to create and cost £250,000 in research, development and innovation.
Last year the UK Food Standards Agency chair, Prof Susan Jebb, described lab-grown meat as one of “the new innovations that might help us to change course” away from climate catastrophe.
EU approval for this technology could take up to three years. A ‘Brexit Benefit’, as claimed by the Government, means Britain can fast track approval to become a ‘world leader’ in cultured meat production. However, the recent National Food Strategy Independent Review states:
The headline-grabber is lab-grown meat. This involves harvesting stem cells from a small stock of animals, which are then fed with a nutrient-rich solution typically including bovine fetal serum (blood drawn from the foetus of a cow), until they grow into a sort of meaty pulp. No one has yet worked out how to manufacture lab-grown meat at scale. Last year’s news stories about a Singapore restaurant serving lab-grown chicken nuggets neglected to mention that each £12 nugget only contained a tiny amount of lab grown meat, mixed with plant protein for bulk.
One of the leading lab grown meat development companies is Israel-based Aleph Farms. Shiok Meats in Singapore is also working to develop cellular technology to produce sustainable and healthy shrimp, lobster, crab and other meats. They appear to suggest that livestock, fishing and shellfish farming will eventually become niche occupations, existing solely to provide cells to the laboratories.
Food Standards Agency
A recent survey by the Food Standards Agency revealed that a third of UK consumers would try cultured meat. In comparison and 25% would try edible insects. Up to six in ten of us are willing to try plant-based products, which are already on the market.
Later this year the FSA is planning to bring together key industry stakeholders to consider how support can be provided to businesses entering this market. Guiding them through the FSA’s existing regulatory framework and risk analysis process for the introduction of new food products will be vital.
Professor Robin May, FSA Chief Scientific Adviser quoted in the survey: “Our priority is to protect consumer interests by ensuring food is safe and what it says it is, through a robust scientific process. We recognise the potential of alternative proteins for improving dietary health and as part of a sustainable food system.”
Is lab-grown meat commercially viable?
A recent report by the thinktank IPES-Food said claims that lab-grown meat was sustainable is “limited and speculative.”
“I would [also] be concerned that most of the data on [product] safety is coming from the firms themselves,” said Prof Philip Howard, an IPES-Food expert. “There aren’t enough independent studies. This is a very new technology and frankly it’s not commercially viable. There’s no way to make money on it, so pushing for regulatory approval is premature.”
So, fast-tracking UK approval of cultured meat is not a solution for our short or medium term food-security. It is just another Government headline-grabber, as a so-called ‘Brexit Benefit’.
Whilst we await the arrival of these laboratory produced proteins, does it not make sense for the UK Government to continue supporting and encouraging the farmers of our region and across the country? Unfortunately, current indications do not look favourable.