From free-range chicken to eating ethically is becoming more and more of a head-scratcher. Even for vegans, there are the questions of how sustainably agave was sourced, or whether environment-damaging pesticides were used to grow kale. For a slaughter-free spaghetti bolognese to a chicken burger where no chicken was harmed, food technology is turning science fiction into science facts, one innovation at a time.
Meat alternatives are not new. But a quiet revolution is also taking place in labs, where scientists are working to cultivate meat and seafood grown from cells, with the potential to reduce demand for industrial animal agriculture even further. Cultured meat involves directly culturing the same (or very similar) animal cells that make up conventional meat. Therefore, it is theoretically possible to create meat products completely indistinguishable from conventional meat, and without the need for slaughter.
Since the first cultured meat was produced back in 2013, it recently was seen all over the news when in December 2020, the industry received a major boost when Singapore became the first region in the world to grant regulatory approval for commercial sale of a cultured meat products by Eat Just. Many in the industry are hoping this will be the first of many approvals over the next few years, helping cultured meat transition from the prototype stage to consumer products.
Growing market trajectory
IDTechEx has recently released ‘Cultured Meat 2021-2041: Technologies, Markets, Forecasts’, a market research report exploring the technical and market factors that are shaping the emerging industry around cultured meat. The cultured meat industry has grown rapidly over the last five years. In 2016, there were only four companies in the industry, only one of which had developed anything close to a prototype. Now there are more than 40 companies across the world working to develop cultured meat, with dozens of prototype products having been demonstrated and tasted.
The growth of the industry has been reflected by a growth in investment, with the industry having raised close to a billion dollars in private funding since 2015. 2020 was a bumper year for the industry, with companies raising over $300 million.
In India, lab-grown meat may soon make its way to the plates. The Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), along with the National Research Centre on Meat (NCRM) are partnering to produce ‘ahimsa meat’ or slaughter-free meat – mutton and chicken that has been grown from stem cells, without animal rearing. It’s a significant move because India is one of the few countries in the world where the government is funding projects to develop lab meat.
India is tapping the market too
Ashwin Bhadri, CEO of Equinox Labs which is India's food, water and air testing lab, feels that right now, India is at a budding stage in the Alt meat market in terms of market size but there’s definitely potential there. “Positive positive impact on the environment, reduced animal cruelty and increased sustainability, will make cultured meat more popular in the coming years. The products will have to be according to the taste and texture of Indian consumers who prefer spicier, masala-based dishes. So it will certainly take some time to reach that potential,” he further commented.
In 2050, the world’s population is going to be 10 billion and feeding this population with the current food system is impossible. Bill Gates in his book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster advocates for innovation in food technology and speaks of cultivated and plant-based meat.The technologies have the potential to make boneless slaughter free meat products like kheema or a chicken breast and even a fish fillet keeping in mind the Indian tastebuds.
Challenges that can come as a hurdle
However, despite this optimism, the industry still faces some major challenges. It is very expensive to produce cultured meat and no company has yet been able to produce it on a commercial scale.
Rinku Madan, Food Stylist and Independent F&B Consultant commented that lab-grown meat may, in fact, worsen climate change. “Although it is expected to produce more CO2 than the more potent methane, CO2 takes much longer to dissipate,” she stated.
Madan also feels that there won’t be an acceptance for genetically modified or cultured meat coming any time soon in India. “While cultured meat is trying to give consumers everything they love about meat in a more humane way, at the end of the day it is a genetically modified product. India has never shown an inclination to GMO staples like corn, brinjal, papaya etc. Most Millenials though might be a little more accepting considering the benefits cultured meat might have on the environment which would be a huge plus if its true,” she said.
At a summit on the future of protein in 2018, Union Minister Maneka Gandhi had advised the CCMB to produce ahimsa meat on a commercial scale within the next 5 years. CCMB director Rakesh Mishra said the institute will develop technology to take the production process from lab-based to industrial levels – so it may reach consumers in India sooner than thought.
Can India produce clean meat for masses?
But does India have enough infrastructure in terms of labs to curate its own cultured meat if demand arise? Answering the same, Bhadri commented, “The way things stand, India’s cold chain infra is splintered with 40 to 50 percent of food wastage. Only 33 percent of Indians own a refrigerator at home. Therefore, higher shelf life will be a necessity to expand the adoption and we must work towards extending the shelf life of alt meat products.”
Moreover, as mentioned above, price remains a major hurdle to mass consumption at present according to Bhadri. The cost of lab-grown chicken is 3 to 4x more than that of an actual chicken. Innovation will be needed to bring the cost of lab-grown meat, on parity with actual meat rates.
Will we see clean meat in restaurant menus?
Restaurants in India till now have not tapped into this segment while many have already pushing mock meats into their menus. Bhadri anticipates that with India taking its baby steps in the space, agreeable Govt. regulations, increased interest of research and corporate bodies in product development, and willingness of the investors to encourage radical transformation will be critical to shape the ecosystem.
“Restaurants will need to invest heavily in tech and marketing. Taste, convenience and price will be the three pillars for widespread industry adoption and establishing a viable model to be built on these pillars will take time,” he commented.
According to Madan, the Indian restaurant industry, just like the current mindset across the world, has similar sets of reservations about using lab-grown meat. “While cultured meat is deemed safe for human consumption, some questions remain about this type of meat. For instance, some people may have a perception that lab-grown meat is not natural, which may be similar to people’s concerns about genetically modified (GM) foods. Also, the lack of bone and fat in lab-grown meat may compromise the taste of the dish to the consumers,” she said.
Many well-known restaurateurs like the James Beard awardee Dan Barber, say that they don’t see themselves serving ‘lab-grown meat’. According to them, they don’t see the appeal in serving cultured meat. It also ignores the correspondence between gastronomy and agriculture.
In India there may also be cultural and social factors that will need to be addressed for this to be socially acceptable. But considering the global wave about cultured or clean meat, it is time India begins this dialogue.