Would you eat chicken grown from a capsule? An Israeli start-up is hoping to convince you, for the sake of the planet.
Three years ago, the world's media gathered in front of a stage in London to watch a man eat a hamburger.
What made this event so noteworthy? The burger cost $325,000 or 290,000 euros. It was the result of a research project lasting several years and bankrolled by Sergey Brin, the eccentric co-founder of Google. Scientists had grown 20,000 muscle fibers from cow stem cells to create a substance that was biologically identical to beef. It was a proof-of-concept demonstration, and at the time the scientists said they didn't expect this ‘cultured meat' to become commercially viable for 20 to 30 years.
But an Israeli start-up launched earlier this year says they've identified a new way to grow chicken meat that could be commercially viable within just five years, with a chicken burger costing just two dollars.
Not like tofu
"It's the perfect solution because you're not forcing anybody to change their habits," says Shir Friedman, a spokesperson for the company. "You're not asking people to convert to some kind of tofu or vegetable-based product, you're giving people the exact same product that their cultures have been eating for centuries."
Although much of the laboratory meat effort has been focused on beef, SuperMeat is focused on chicken because it's the most common meat (there are 100 chickens killed for every cow). The goal is to grow chicken breasts from the cells of real chickens with a "meat oven" device. The ovens, located at factories, supermarkets, restaurants and eventually even in peoples homes, would enable people to grow their own meat after inserting a capsule into the device.
Unlike Brin's burger, the technology does not use animal serum but instead uses cells. It's based on a revolutionary technology developed by Yaakov Nahmias, a professor at Hebrew University, in 2006. It's actually based on a 3D printing technique Nahmias used to map human liver cells.
Consumers have been wary about the idea of eating meat 'grown in a laboratory'.
The capsule that could solve climate change
The idea for growing meat in a lab isn't new. In fact, a century ago people assumed it was around the corner. In his 1932 essay ‘Fifty Years Hence' Winston Churchill wrote,"We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium."
That prediction did not come to pass, largely because there has not been a strong public demand. Over the past decades an increasing number of people in the Western world have become horrified with the practices of industrial farming and become vegetarians for ethical reasons. But there are not enough vegetarians in this world to provide a market-driven pursuit of lab-grown meat.
The global challenge of climate change has provided new impetus. Many people don't know it, but eating meat is one of the most carbon-intensive things you can do as a human being. Rearing animals to be slaughtered and eaten requires a huge amount of land and feed.
For every 15 grams of edible animal protein we eat from a cow, 100 grams of vegetable protein are required to rear it.
More food from less land
Already, almost half of the Earth's useable surface is covered by pasture land for rearing animals or growing the food to feed them. By contrast, only 4 percent is used to grow crops for human consumption. Livestock account for 5 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and 40 percent of emissions of methane – a far more damaging greenhouse gas.
Because of the exploding population growth in the developing world, and the increasing meat consumption of the middle class in countries like China and India, the market for meat is expected to double by 2050. This would mean that by that time, meat would have almost as much impact on the climate as transport.
“It's just not sustainable,” says Friedman. “Really we would have no choice other than to stop. The earth doesn't have enough water and enough land - we don't have enough planet to keep doing what we're doing.”
According to a study conducted by the Universities of Oxford and Amsterdam, if humanity switched to eating cultured meat en masse it would result in 80 percent less GHG emissions from food and around 99 percent less land use. Growing the meat en masse would require a lot of power, but the switch would still result in a 7 percent decrease in energy use compared to livestock rearing.
Getting past the ‘ick' factor
However there is still a lot of skepticism over whether cultured meat could get to a commercial scale any time soon. Sergey Brin may be an adventurous investor, but there are few like him. Venture capital funding to companies like SuperMeat has been hard to come by, because investors are skeptical about whether people will really eat meat grown in a lab.
Efforts are being made to normalize the idea in peoples' minds. The very name ‘cultured meat' is an attempt to make it more palatable, as it was originally referred to as ‘stem cell meat'.
“Once at commercial scale SuperMeat will not be grown in a laboratory, it will be grown in meat-making machines,” says Friedman. “Nothing people will eat will touch any laboratory equipment in any way shape or form.”
SuperMeat has some seed funding from private backers but they desperately need more. They have launched a crowd-funding campaign with a web campaign and promotional video. Developing this technology will take big bucks, at a level unlikely to be fulfilled by crowd-sourcing alone.
“People have asked us, why have you launched the crowd-funding campaign when this would require much more money [than you could raise],” says Friedman. “It's to show investors that the public wants to see this coming. With the crowdfunding, people are actually buying vouchers for future SuperMeat purchases. It will show the investors: look, people want to buy this.”