Cultured meat is an interesting concept that could hit stores soon. But this new science needs to make a case for consumers, not just for the industry.
According to a recent survey by Dalhousie University, fewer than 19 per cent of Canadians would willingly ditch their favourite steak for a lab-grown version.
But even if Canadians still need to be convinced, the technology is moving fast and products could hit stores in five to seven years.
Just six years ago, we saw a televised tasting session in which a $330,000 piece of lab-grown meat was eaten. The burger was slaughter-free and made from genuine animal cells.
The cost of the same amount of cultured meat could be down to $3 to $5 by 2021.
Regulators in the U.S. are expected to approve cultured meat within the next two years. Canada, as usual, should follow suit six months to a year later.
Most of the developments in this area have been driven by American scientists. But the research is moving closer to home. A group at the University of Toronto will attempt to develop an affordable way to grow lab-made meat after having secured a grant from an American-based non-profit organization, the Good Food Institute. Largely funded by vegan and animal rights groups, the institute has awarded the U of T team US$250,000 over two years.
It’s not a large amount but it’s enough to make things interesting.
Venture capital for agri-food is rare in Canada, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see funds coming from abroad to support public research in Canada. The U of T team is not aware of other academic research on lab-grown meat in Canada. However, it’s quite possible that private research is being conducted.
Environmentalists and animal rights activists support these scientific ambitions. According to recent studies, a scalable cultivated meat processor would use significantly less land, water, energy and food input. As well, since it doesn’t involve killing animals, certain lobby groups support these projects vigorously.
However, a United Kingdom-based study recently suggested that lab-grown meat can only be produced through energy-intensive practices, making the product less climate-friendly.
A question mark remains about the taste of cultured meat. The physical attributes are also unknown. How the product responds on a barbecue is also a big issue. The aroma and appearance of meat are big for home chefs. And how will professionals react to such a product?
In addition, communicating risk is still one big aspect the food industry and regulators haven’t resolved. Lab-grown meat and the issues surrounding it won’t be immune to poor communication.
The agri-food industry doesn’t have a great reputation when it comes to introducing new products to the food system. Decades after the introduction of genetic engineering, for example, the debate rages on and divides consumers. The technology is largely misunderstood by urbanites even though genetically-engineered ingredients have been in our food since 1994.
And trans fats were part of our food for decades without consumers knowing how harmful they were. Mandatory labelling of trans fats only happened in 2007 and they were just banned last year.
At least regulators got it right with the recent mandatory labelling policy for irradiated food.
If cultured meat is to be sold in Canada, consumers deserve to know the facts. Giving consumers a clear choice allows them to fully appreciate what technological advances can do in food. This opportunity was missed when it came to genetic engineering and editing. Most of us never had an opportunity to appreciate how science can serve society.
Science is telling us that lab-grown meat is sustainable and could provide an affordable source of protein to the masses. On that basis, it’s worth pursuing and consumers should know how it can benefit them.
It they can rely on absolute transparency, more than 19 per cent of Canadians likely would consider cultured meat. If science wants buy-in, it needs to make a case for consumers and not just for industry.
Sylvain Charlebois is scientific director of the Canadian Agrifood Foresight Institute, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, and a senior fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.