Clean Meat – the food of the future?

Clean meat - or cultured meat - is set to revolutionize the food industry. Can it provide a viable alternative to conventional meat that is healthier, more ethical and better for our planet?

The present and future of meat

People across the globe are eating more meat than ever. Whether it be a bacon sandwich or a juicy burger, most of us find it an irresistible part of our diet.

But the way that we have traditionally produced meat by farming animals is environmentally unsustainable. It's putting pressure on our resources such as land and water, contributing to the loss of biodiversity and to the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change. We need a radical shift in our approach.

A recent United Nations report calls on us to all substantially cut down on our meat consumption to help save the planet [1]. But what if there was a way to continue eating our burgers and bacon, guilt-free?

Clean meat – grown in the lab, rather than on a farm – could offer that sustainable alternative.

Using technologies already familiar to cell biologists around the world, the approach involves growing meat from real animal cells in a process known as cell-based agriculture. The future vision is to grow clean meat products – such as chicken, beef, pork or fish – commercially at a large-scale in factories that resemble something like a brewery. 

Did you know?

  • 70%

    is the estimated increase in global demand for meat and milk by 2050 [2].

  • ≈96%

    is the potential cut in agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by switching to cultured meat [3].

  • $50

    is the predicted cost of the first clean meat burger, a dramatic fall from $330,000 in 2013 [4,5].

The world’s increasing appetite for meat

By 2050, estimates suggest that the number of people on the planet will have increased by 2 billion, from 7.7 billion to 9.7 million – and could peak at nearly 11 billion at the turn of the century [6].

But the demand for more meat isn’t only fueled by our growing population – economic development and the expanding middle-classes are also important factors. Put simply, as people get richer, they can afford – and want – to eat more meat.

Estimates suggest that by 2050, the demand for meat and milk will grow by a staggering 70% [2]. And it’s a similar story when it comes to seafood – we are now eating more than double the amount of fish than we did 50 years ago [7].

Bad for the planet – and for our conscience

But our taste for animal protein comes at a huge environmental cost.

An astonishing 60% of global biodiversity loss can be traced back to the way we farm our food [8]. Huge swathes of forests are lost every year, and it is estimated that almost 70% of deforested areas are converted to agricultural land [9]. Much of this is used for livestock – or to grow crops, such as soy, needed for their feed.

Producing meat also contributes heavily to greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change. Indeed, recent estimates suggest that livestock are responsible for around 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activity [10].

And there are also ethical considerations. Many people want the assurance that the animals have led good lives. But this is often at odds with large-scale industrial farming practices, which can lead to suffering.

Clean meat: Ethical, healthy and environmentally sustainable

Eliminating the need to breed, raise and slaughter animals for food, clean meat – which is also known as cultured, cultivated or cell-based meat– offers a way to reduce the environmental impact of traditional meat production.

Figures suggest that, compared to conventionally produced European meat, clean meat has the potential to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by 78-96% – while also using 99% less land and 82-96% less water [3].

And cultured meat, which is generated from only a few animal cells at the start of the process, would result in ethical meat products that avoid the animal welfare concerns raised by intensive farming methods.

There is also the potential to create clean meat with additional health benefits, such as extra nutrients – or fewer contaminants like antibiotics, pathogens or microplastics. In the future, we could choose to eat chicken with added vitamins, beef with omega-3 fats – or mercury-free tuna.

Collaboration is key for the commercialization of clean meat

Numerous startups around the world are researching the mass production of clean meat – with the aim of putting affordable products onto our plates. But it’s still early days for this emerging industry – and the upscaling and efficient production of cultured meat remains a huge challenge.

As a leading supplier to the biopharma industry, we have extensive knowledge of the relevant science and biotechnology that are required to produce clean meat. By working with companies who are looking to commercialize clean meat, we offer our knowledge and production skills to help them to overcome critical technological challenges to produce meat that is healthier, more efficiently produced, ethical and environmentally sustainable.

Our Innovation Center and the Innovation Hub in Silicon Valley are jointly driving the Clean Meat Innovation Field. Our commitment is generating positive feedback across the food industry – in recognition of the value that we can add to accelerate cultured meat production and the development of products with the desired qualities.

As a leader in the life science industry, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany is positioned to become the leading technology provider to the clean meat industry,” says David Welch, Director of Science & Technology, The Good Food Institute. “The decision by them to create a team focused on clean meat is an important milestone in this young industry and will have a profound impact on how quickly and efficiently the industry advances.

How burgers are grown

How we can help support clean meat production

We are working closely with a broad range of partners across different sectors – including academia, start-ups, non-profits and large corporations – as part of our commitment to accelerating the clean meat industry. 

“We already offer reagents and equipment needed for the upstream process for growing cells – for example, cell culture media, growth factors, monitoring tools and bioreactors,” says Thomas Herget, our Head Innovation Hub Silicon Valley. “And we serve the stem cell industry with cell lines, differentiation- and analytical tools.

Cell culture media are a blend of 50 to 100 speciality ingredients – sugars, salts, pH buffers, amino acids, micronutrients and growth factor proteins – each of which needs to be sourced, analysed, sterilized and then optimized for each individual cell type.

Cell culture media is the major cost driver for clean meat products and attributes 50% to 80% of all costs presently,” says Herget. “For start-up companies, it is a very difficult process to develop their own cell culture media for their specific cells or cell lines. There is a lot of know-how in research and production needed.

For clean meat production, these recipes will also need to be free from any animal-derived materials – and one of our innovation projects aims to design and commercialize suitable animal-origin free formulations.

We are also interested in helping to find solutions to other technical challenges – including growing cells at scale using industrial perfusion bioreactors and the use of cutting-edge technologies – such as edible scaffolds and 3D printing – that hold the potential to develop the next generation of structured products.

A new way to eat meat?

While the prospect of eating clean meat may today still seem like science fiction, the industry is quickly gaining momentum.

In 2013, food critics ate a lab-grown burger on live TV that had a price tag of around $300,000 [4]. Since then, the price has plummeted to a predicted $50 when it will be launched within the next years – and this is likely to fall even more in the future [5]. So, it may not be too long before clean meat products start to reach our menus.

The final challenge will be to persuade diners to make the switch to clean meat. Would you choose to eat traditionally produced meat – or an alternative that is more humane and comes at a lower cost to our environment?

In 2012, the United Nations set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that meet the urgent environmental, political and economic challenges facing our world. Three years later, these were adopted by all member states. We are committed that our work will help to achieve these ambitious targets. Developing clean meat fits under ‘Goal 12 — Responsible consumption and production patterns; Target 12.2 — to achieve sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources by 2030.’ Switching from traditional farming methods to cell-based agriculture has huge potential to help meet the world’s growing demand for meat and dairy products while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions and using substantially less land and water resources.

Learn more about SDGs
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  • J L Nov 25 2020, 3:13 PM

    Enlightening article - gives me hope for solving hunger, any many other challenges! Thanks for posting!