The idea of cultured meat is actually quite old. In 1931, Winston Churchill published an article entitled “50 years hence”. One of his predictions was that “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
In the Netherlands, an entrepreneur called Willem Van Eelen campaigned vigorously for cultured meat to become truth. In 2008 he managed to secure government funding for a project which brought together scientists and people working in the meat industry to discuss the potential of cultured meat.
This is where Peter and Mark (Mosa Meat’s CEO and CSO) first met. They were both so convinced of this idea that, even after the funding had been consumed, they continued to work on the project.
The reason why Peter and Mark were both so taken by the idea was that they considered it as one of the possible solutions to the coming food crisis. According to FAO’s reports the global meat demand will increase by 70% by 2050, but there isn’t capacity to increase meat supply this much by using livestock. Furthermore, this would increase the negative effects of livestock production on the planet.
They decided to create Mosa Meat to make cultured meat a mass product, so that meat production would become less harmful for the environment, animals and the human health.
The first step consisted in creating a scientific prototype in order to show that it is scientifically possible to grow cells outside an animal’s body. This was the famous hamburger that was unveiled to the world in a press conference hold in London in 2013.
It took 9 months to create the three hamburgers presented and the tireless labour from the scientists in the lab. They also cost EUR 250.000 each (this project was founded by Sergey Brin, a Google co-founder).
The 2013 event played a key role in raising awareness about this new technology, and encouraged the creation of a new brand in cultured meat industry. The next step for Mosa Meat was developing a scalable production process.
I strongly believe in the potential of cultured meat to reduce the suffering of animals and halt the disastrous environmental impact of livestock meat production.
I have an academic training in economics and some work experience in the animal welfare advocacy, and I have found out that it can be very difficult to convince people to change their food habits if it is too hard for them. Currently, it is not very easy for many people to become vegetarian or vegan, because they enjoy eating meat. When I first read about cultured meat in a magazine, I was very excited about this new technology, because it would allow people to continue eating meat without forcing animals to endure miserable lives in factory farms.
I am also very concerned about the role that livestock production is playing in favouring the climate change, deforestation and a mass loss in biodiversity. It is shocking to think that 70% of the Amazon rainforest has already been cleared to leave room for cattle grazing. It is projected that cultured meat production will use 99% less land, meaning that vast areas could be reverted to their wild state (and resume their function as crucial carbon sinks).
The production process starts with cows. Livestock production is now on a very small scale, but in the future we could expect to have a herd of around 30,000 cows which could allow us to satisfy the global meat demand (and live in the most human conditions). We first take a painless 1-gram biopsy in order to obtain stem cells that can turn into muscle cells and fat cells.
Stem cells are then fed on a mixture of nutrients and naturally-occurring growth factors and they begin to proliferate, just as they would do inside the animal’s body. They proliferate until they reach trillions of cells. If we want stem cells to differentiate into muscle or fat cells, we simply have to remove the growth factors, and leave them to do it naturally. Cells are seeded on gel scaffolds, where they start to fuse together into rings. In this shape, cells begin to contract and put on bulk, eventually forming muscle fibres. When we layer muscle fibres and fat cells together, we get a hamburger.
It’s very difficult to calculate the current production cost because it still is on a very small scale, and the scaled-up production process has not been designed yet. Since we don’t know how this production process will work on a large scale, we can only make suggestions about it.
Bearing this in mind, our modelling indicates that if we scaled up this innovative technology a hamburger (which is roughly 100g) would cost about EUR10, definitely too expensive to compete with conventional animal meat-based products (a supermarket hamburger costs about EUR1). But the production system could be improved in such different ways so as to increase its efficiency and drive prices down to an equal or lower level than conventional meat products in the coming decades.
Numerous studies have been carried out on how consumers decide the food to purchase, and these have consistently shown that consumers mostly take care about three things: taste, price and convenience. Other aspects, such as healthiness and the ethical compliance of production processes, fall far behind.
For this reason, we believe that the organoleptic characteristics of cultured meat will be vital to obtain the consumer’s acceptance. Our current assumption is that consumers do want cultured meat to taste like that they already eat and enjoy. But we need to investigate more on this and try to meet consumers’ exigences – our main goal is to make consumers happy, as this is the only way for cultured meat to become a mass product. In terms of ingredients, we think that the key is to make cultured meat identical, or as similar as possible, to the animal one. Therefore, we are focusing on creating pure, fully-differentiated muscle tissue that has the same texture and functional properties as conventional meat.
As we are a few years off launching our first product on the market, we are still thinking about the best strategies to identify our target markets. However, we do know that we really hope for regular meat eaters (not vegetarians or vegans) to purchase our product. It is highly reasonable that a plant-based diet will always be better for the environment than a cultured meat one, so it makes sense for vegetarian and vegan people to continue going on their current diets. We really want animal meat lovers to switch to cultured meat, as only this will produce a positive impact on animals and the environment.
I do believe that cultured meat could be the future food. This depends on the technological progress and the ability to create 3D structures (such as steaks) as well as ground meat products. And it is also connected to cultured meat products price-competitiveness, which we think will take at least a decade to be achieved. But once we have produced high-quality cultured meat products – avoiding using harmful processes for animals or the environment – we are sure that they will result appealing for the majority of consumers.