An IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign for ‘cultured meat production’ has recently ploughed through its first funding milestone of $100,000 in just ten days. This milestone will enable the 'SuperMeat' lab to begin experimenting with a technique that allows them to produce meat ‘in-vitro’, i.e. without the need to rear and slaughter livestock. Researchers use a painless procedure to extract a number of ‘satellite cells’ from a live animal: in this case chicken. A single satellite cell can then be used to produce approximately one billion billion (10^18) adult muscle cells.
Meat produced in this way would be indistinguishable from meat produced via conventional methods, and has the potential to dramatically reduce the harmful environmental impacts of the livestock industry. The research team is led by award-winning scientist Yaakov Nahmias, and hopes to reach product availability by July 2021.
Proof-of-concept for lab-grown meat was demonstrated in 2013 through the development - and consumption - of a $330,000 beef burger. The lead researcher of that experiment now estimates that the unit price has plummeted to $11. There is an opportunity to exploit this drop in price; if SuperMeat can deliver on its goal to produce affordable lab-grown meat by 2021, the consequences could be huge.
We know that the livestock industry is one of the key contributors to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, and yet calls to wean us off meat have been falling on deaf ears, with meat consumption set to rise 75% by 2050. Being able to produce meat without all the harmful effects of industrial-scale farming would therefore be a huge boon for climate change goals. As a guide, an independent study found that lab-grown beef uses 45% less energy, 99% less land, and releases less 96% greenhouse gases than conventional methods.
What’s more, SuperMeat’s goal is not merely to produce meat for sale, but also to produce and sell the ‘meat machine’ required to do so. Mainstream adoption of this technology would profoundly disrupt wasteful factory-farming practices and allow for a demand-led supply chain. Imagine if every restaurant or supermarket (or even home if the price was low enough) had the capacity to produce meat at quantities tailored to demand: food waste (from meat) would be significantly reduced.
This decentralised mode of production also has implications for not only equitable access to protein (essential for a nutritious diet, whether sourced from meat or plant-based alternatives) but also the equitable distribution of the profits through a more horizontal ownership structure. We can see similar trends within energy production, through demand-led smart grids and the formation of energy co-ops.
Although funders are not shareholders, SuperMeat’s IndieGoGo page asserts that they are open to suggestions submitted by the public. It would be fantastic to see a company that is more open to include its consumers ‘upstream’ in the development process, as opposed to merely responding to the whims of their wallets downstream. Whereas the beef-burger project was secretly bankrolled by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, the transparent and inclusive approach of SuperMeat offers hope for a break with problematic commercial monopolies over both the means of production and the fruits of labour in industrial agriculture.
While in vitro meat could have a role to play in the challenge of equitable global access to nutrition, there are some concerns. For instance, there is a risk that systemic and positive change in the livestock industry could be frustrated through practices such as patent pooling and lobbying. Moreover, might a surge in cheap in-vitro meat detract from important moves to encourage greater consumption of plant-based proteins? Please share your thoughts with us here.
You can find out more about ‘cultured meat’ by reading our interview with MIT ethnographer, Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, here.