Clean meat—also known as lab-grown, in vitro, or cultured meat—is meat grown in cell culture, rather than in an animal’s body. There is enormous interest surrounding clean meat technology, as it offers the potential to produce ‘meat’ products without the environmental and social risks embedded in the current meat production industry.
With meat consumption expected to increase by 73% by 2050, demand for sustainable, nutritious produce to feed a growing population presents a huge problem. Clean meat offers a possible counter-response to this, potentially spelling the end of industrial animal farming—or at least a significant reduction in traditional farming practices.
Although it’s still in its embryonic stages as an industry, there is a growing number of companies that are well advanced on the journey towards meat without slaughter.
What is clean meat?
So what does the term ‘clean meat’ actually mean?
Whereas plant-based meat uses ingredients derived from plants, clean meat is made by collecting stem cells from an animal, which are then grown into muscle tissue. The aim is to re-create the complex taste and texture of real meat.
The term ‘clean meat’, is rooted in the idea that cultured meat provides a cleaner alternative to slaughtered meat, both in terms of sanitation and environmental impact. Clean meat requires 99% less land and 96% less water than traditional animal agriculture and can be produced at a much faster rate. Growing cells in laboratory environments also mitigates some of the health risks associated with intensive farming practices such as zoonotic disease and antibiotic resistance.
How is clean meat made?
Each company has its own techniques for producing clean meat, but the overall process is broadly the same.
Clean meat is made of one or more types of stem cell – from embryonic stem cells to fully differentiated muscle cells. These are extracted from the animal by a harmless biopsy and placed in a culture medium. Historically, this was done using a fetal bovine serum, collected from the fetus when a pregnant cow is slaughtered; however, many companies have now developed synthetic or plant-based growth media to mitigate ethical issues.
This culture medium then provides the nutrients, salts, pH buffers, and other growth factors that allow the cells to proliferate. Once the cells reach sufficient numbers, the culture conditions are altered to cause the cells to form into muscle fibres.
Crafting a product that combines several ingredients with ground meat – a burger, for example – is much easier than mimicking a structured product like steak or chicken breast. For a ground meat product, muscle fibres are harvested and then assembled into a burger or meatball. To produce structured meats, on the other hand, stem cells must be seeded on a three-dimensional scaffold that moves and stretches the developing muscle, simulating an animal’s body.
Investing in clean meat
There are currently no clean meat products on sale commercially, so most of the investment opportunities are around venture capital for start-ups in this space. Some of the companies currently active in both clean meat and ‘clean fish’ include Aleph Farms, Avant Meats, BlueNalu, Finless Foods, Fork & Goode, Good Catch, JUST, Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat, New Age Meats, Seafuture, and SuperMeat.
Investors have been highly responsive to clean-meat technology, reflected by generous investment in R&D and numerous high profile backers. As investors continue to transition away from an increasingly high-risk meat industry, the financial potential for cultured meats is colossal—currently estimated to be worth $15.5m by 2021, rising to $20m by 2027. In the same way that plant-protein has enjoyed rapid growth in recent years, the financial forecast for clean meats looks extremely promising.
When will clean meat be available to buy?
Two of the biggest clean meat companies Memphis Meats and Mosa Meats plan to launch their first commercial product in as early as 2021. Competition is fierce for clean meat companies, as the race to be the ‘first to market’ increases traction.
To buy commercially, it’s predicted that consumers will to be able to purchase clean meat within the next few years. Initially, clean meat is likely to be introduced to high-end restaurants and speciality stores, before filtering out to mainstream supermarkets after another 2-3 years.
Read more about FAIRR’s sustainable protein engagement here.