NEW YORK – Creating meat from cells is no longer the realm of science fiction — a Russian cosmonaut recently did it aboard the International Space Station, and it is just a matter of time before these products arrive on supermarket shelves.
Tests carried out in space in September led to the production of beef, rabbit and fish tissue using a 3D printer.
This new technology “could make long-term travel possible and renew space exploration,” to Mars for example, said Didier Toubia, head of the Israeli startup company Aleph Farms, which provided cells for the tests.
“But our goal is to sell meat on Earth,” he said.
The idea “is not to replace traditional agriculture,” he said. “It’s about being a better alternative to factory farming.”
The first burger designed with cow stem cells was made by Mark Post, a Dutch scientist from Maastricht University, and was presented in 2013.
Several startups have taken to the niche market since then.
The cost of production remains very high, and none of the products is available for sale yet.
The description for the meat products is also still up for debate: laboratory, artificial, cell-based, cultivated.
But tastings have already taken place, and people in the industry are banking on small-scale commercialization taking place fairly quickly.
“It is likely to be this year,” said Josh Tetrick, head of California’s JUST company, which is growing meat from cells, at a conference in San Francisco. “Not on the market in 4,000 Walmarts or in all McDonald’s, but in a handful of restaurants.”
“The question is, ‘What do you want to put out at what cost?'” said Niya Gupta, founder and CEO of Fork & Goode, which is growing meat from cells in New York.
“As an industry, we are finally making progress on the science. The next step is really making progress on the engineering challenges.”
Estimates suggest the arrival of laboratory-grown meat on supermarket shelves at reasonable prices could happen within the next five to 20 years.
But it would need more investment, several observers have said.
The sector attracted a total of only $73 million in 2018, according to The Good Food Institute, an organization promoting alternatives to meat and fish.
Another obstacle is regulation, which remains imprecise.
In the United States, for example, the government has outlined a regulatory framework that shares oversight of cell-based foods between the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, but it is not yet finalized.
Supporters see cell-based meat and fish products as having the potential to transform the production system sustainably, by avoiding the raising and killing of animals.
Questions remain about the real environmental impact, particularly in terms of energy consumption, as well as about safety.
But “the market opportunity is enormous, especially for seafood,” said Lou Cooperhouse, the CEO of the startup BlueNalu.
“Global demand in the world is at an all-time high,” he said of seafood, but “we have a supply problem” with overfishing, climate change and a very variable supply, coupled with “an issue with the supply itself” — for example, the presence of mercury in some fish.
“What if we could add a third leg on the supply chain: wild-caught, farm-raised, cell-based?”
Created in 2018, BlueNalu is developing a technological platform that can be used to design various seafood products — mainly fish filets without bones or skin.
Scientific literature on stem cells, biological engineering or organic tissue printing already existed, said BlueNalu’s chief technology officer Chris Dammann.
“We need to put the technology back together and optimize it,” Dammann said.
The rise of cell-based proteins doesn’t seem to be a major source of concern for traditional agriculture.
“It is something we need to monitor,” said Scott Bennett, director of congressional relations for the Farm Bureau organization, which represents farmers and ranchers.
Bennett said he feels “our energy would be much better spent in focusing (on) increasing the overall market shares for proteins, especially in developing countries.”
“Some people for social reasons will want to buy this product. But there will always remain a market for conventional meat,” he said.
“It should not be called ‘meat,’ because we don’t want to confuse the consumer as to what this really is. We want to make sure the labeling is very clear,” Bennett added.