Currently, farms around the world are producing chicken for sale by raising fast growing breeds of chicken in batches of tens of thousands, well packaged in warehouses that pose a danger to public health, a fire hazard, a danger to the safety of workers and a danger to the welfare of the chickens themselves.
What if we could grow meat instead without the chickens?
Researchers around the world have been pursuing this dream of “lab” or “cultured” meat for years. Today, lab meat has taken a step closer to reality when the Singapore Food Agency approved the sale of cultured chicken meat grown in bioreactors, becoming the first agency in the world to issue such an approval. Their signature means that the chicken bites from the American company Eat Just will be available to consumers in Singapore. (There are a few other places in the world where you can try lab meat, like experimental restaurant in Israel.)
It’s a big step forward for a technology that is set to bring a desperately needed change to the way the world eats itself.
Laboratory meat, explained
Chicken grown in the lab is believed to be physically identical to chicken from slaughtered animals. It’s made from real chicken cells, but it’s grown on a cell growth scaffold in a factory instead of growing in a living animal. (This approach differs from plant-based meats like the Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat, which use vegetable protein to create products that taste like meat; plant-based meat often tastes very similar to produce. meat that it replaces, but it is not identical on a cellular level.)
The same approach can be used for beef, pork, and other animal products, but for several reasons, chickens are the most attractive place to start. First, chickens represent most animals raised and killed for their meat in the United States, and they’re raised under particularly appalling conditions – making them a good first target in efforts to keep Americans away from junk food. Second, the biggest challenge for lab-grown meat so far has been getting the right structure of the meat: Lab-grown products don’t yet have the texture of the tissue produced inside a. animal. This would make a lab-grown steak disappointing, but it’s less of a limitation for many chicken products.
To grow a product grown in the lab, chicken cells are taken from a real live chicken. The process does not involve killing the animals, so the producers are hoping they can gain buy-in from vegetarians and vegans – although the target market for lab-grown meat products is primarily meat eaters, not vegetarians. These chicken cells are then submerged in a liquid solution called “growth medium” which encourages the cells to multiply. Today, a fetal cow serum is used as a growth medium, but the manufacturers of the product say they hope to switch to a herbal product. Inside the bioreactor, the cells grow until they produce chicken meat – without the chicken.
“A new space race for the future of food is underway,” Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, said in a statement when Singapore announced its approval of Eat Just chicken.. “Cultured meat will mark a huge step forward in our efforts to create a safe, secure and sustainable food supply, and Singapore is leading the way in this transition.”
Timelines for laboratory meat
Providing laboratory meat to consumers would be a huge win for the climate and for animals. Proponents believe this might be the most realistic way to end industrial agriculture and make our food production system sustainable. But there are still significant barriers to widespread access to laboratory meat.
The first is that the technical challenges of bringing lab meat to the table are far from resolved, despite years of effort and investment. Getting meat from a lab to mimic the texture and structure of an animal’s muscles is very difficult. No one has yet figured out how to mimic, say, a steak – so the emphasis on products like chicken pieces, where structure is much less important.
Even replacing chicken products with lab-grown chicken products that don’t require a lot of internal tissue structure would be a huge achievement for the world. But there are still many obstacles to reach this point. Existing projects, like Eat Just’s in Singapore, are small in scope and produce relatively minimal amounts of meat for specialty dishes. The meat industry kills tens of billions of animals every year. Matching it will be a challenge.
“With the numbers we have today,” Ricardo San Martin of UC Berkeley, who studies meat substitutes, told me last year, “we don’t see how. [lab-grown meat] can scale and quickly deliver products at a competitive price. Besides all the technological hurdles, scaling up can be very complex. So far, I haven’t seen a medium-sized operation cultivating this type of cells for this purpose. It’s very difficult, and with what we know today, it might not be the right approach.
The next challenge – closely related to the challenge of scaling – is cost. Meat grown in the lab is much more expensive than factory-farmed. As cellular products develop, they will discover new cost savings and benefit from economies of scale. However, factory farming also benefits from the ability to expand and discover new economies, and through more than half a century of optimizations, it has managed to make factory-raised chicken incredibly inexpensive.
“The most processed, inexpensive forms of chicken are just incredibly cheap, by historical standards and compared to other food products on the market,” Lewis Bollard, who studies animals at Open Philanthropy, told me. Project, in August. “The chicken industry has been successful in cutting all of its costs, it is not paying its environmental bills, it is not paying for a lot of the public health risks it causes. They managed to produce a product that was artificially cheap and difficult to compete with. “
But despite the many challenges ahead, today’s approval in Singapore is cause for celebration. The global food system faces many challenges in the decades to come, from feeding a growing middle-class population around the world who want to enjoy the same variety of foods Americans enjoy at the same low prices, to the fight against climate change, reduce the dangers of factory farming. poses to public health. Advances in laboratory meat are progress towards solving one of the biggest problems we have.
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