Frankenfood? The future of sustainable meat supply

Any grain that doesn’t make the grade is used as feed for livestock. Photo: Peter Ruland.

From petri dish to dinner plate, a concept so far-fetched it sounds like something you’d see in a sci-fi flick watched from the safe distance of your lounge room. But this futuristic concept of lab-grown food, including meat, is fast becoming reality around the globe.

A congregation of experts gathers in California at the inaugural Good Food Conference. Scientists, marketers, and an array of industry specialists discuss how this technology will deliver an alternative version of the beloved beef burger to our dinner tables in less than a decade.

Good Food Institute director Professor David Welch introduces the conference audience to the possibility of an “agricultural evolution rather than a revolution”. He says with an expected 10 billion mouths to feed by 2050, it’s time to recognise the inefficiencies of modern farming practices. An imbalance exists between the amount of land used for livestock agriculture, and the protein and energy it provides.

“Just under a third of the earth’s surface is made up of land, and of that [which] is habitable … we already use half of it for agriculture,” he says. “Over three quarters of [agricultural land] is used for livestock production and it only produces 33 per cent of the world’s protein supply.”

Look to any nation’s climate policy and it will more than likely outline a scheme to reduce carbon production. The greenhouse gases conversation should encompass all gases, including methane and nitrous oxide – a gas with nearly 300 per cent more global warming potential than carbon dioxide. In 2014, the controversial documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret revealed that the world’s combined transport emissions equated to 13 per cent of all emissions, while livestock byproducts contributed a whopping 51 per cent.

A topic that hits closer to home when considering the drought-stricken state of eastern Australia, is water consumption.

More than 20,000 litres of water are required to produce just 1kg of beef.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development the average person eats 30kg of meat, thus draining the world’s water supply by 600,000 litres each year. In Australia we’re not your average Joes. Rather, we’ve been named (and shamed) among the highest meat-eating nations, consuming triple that amount. As one of the driest continents on the planet (second only to Antarctica), this is not a favourable position for us to be in.

Meat and three veg: a staple dinner in many Australian homes – and something Agricultural scientist Rob Hulme was raised on. With five generations of farming in his blood, Hulme says agriculture is in his DNA. Now the Head of Asia at agriculture technology company Beanstalk, he sees a need for change. “[My heritage] helps to put it in context, particularly with where my focus is today: which is more broadly around reinventing our food system and thinking about … how we used to farm and how it’s changed even today,” he says. Companies like Beanstalk are investigating new technologies to produce meat and manage loss and waste in the process.

So how does one go about growing a meat patty in a petri dish? There are two streams of new-meat technologies – plant and animal derived. Growing both involves taking a stem cell from a plant or animal and growing it in a culture with the necessary nutrients to allow the cells to multiply. They are constantly contracting, duplicating and link to form minute tissue strands which, combined, create the famous beef (non-beef) patty.

On the panel at the Good Food Conference, MosaMeat co-founder Mark Post delves into the process of growing meat variations more elaborate than the humble meat patty. “Meat is actually a complex tissue that is comprised of several cell types. “We co-culture muscle and fat cells and combine them in a three-dimensional structure,” he says. This requires specific biomaterials [to resist] the forces that are generated by the muscle cells, thus prompting the cells to take a specific form. While challenging, Post says “it’s a very realistic” prospect.

Director of research at Impossible Foods Dr Celeste Holz-Schietinger poses a question to the conference audience: “What is cow made from?” “Plants,” she says. Upon observing the molecular structure of meat she has found plants can be used to create “the same sensory experiences in flavour, texture, and nutrition as beef”.

Both streams of new meat technologies have encountered opposition. The perception that lab-grown meat is a kind of frankenfood sums up community and industry concerns that these foods are unnatural. To this Hulme challenges consumers to walk down the aisle of any supermarket and point out products that are “purportedly one hundred per cent meat”.

We all know that they are processed in some shape or form with additives and preservatives and made to look like meat products,” he says. “There’ll always be a segment of the market that demands [grass-fed] meat, but I think increasingly for processed meats – not only from a sustainability point of view, but for some countries’ food security – cellular agriculture holds a lot of potential, and at a much lower environmental footprint than what current meat production is providing.”

Perhaps the way to tackle the currently unsustainable food supply system is through education. Alana Grant, mother of two and sustainability advocate, spent most of her young adult life as a Willing Worker on Organic Farms around the world.

Grant says her WOOFing days showed her the “massive” disconnect between people and food. “When you raise an animal and you kill it yourself, there’s this level of respect and gratitude for the meat. We are so used to buying our meat in slabs at the supermarket where it’s not even named a cow – it’s named beef – even in the language people don’t really want to know where it came from,” she says.

Cows or beef? Photo: Peter Ruland.

“If there is awareness of what the food is, how it’s grown, how it’s made and the amount of energy it takes to produce, then we can begin to understand the process.”

The state of the food supply system is not only being discussed by scientists and eco-warriors, prominent figures like Jamie Oliver have also joined the conversation. The need for change is emphasised when the Naked Chef is substituting plant-based options in Italian cuisine – one that prides itself on its cured meats.

“We are all people right, and we all eat, and that’s the starting point,” Hulme says. “It’s not as much about the technology but what the technology provides in terms of access to choice.”

But, he says, the mainstream consumer and the producer really have to focus on how can we produce things more sustainably, and be in a position to feed another two and a half billion people in the next 20 or 30 years.

“That’s the real challenge.”