Synthetic meat is the new frontier of food

If livestock farmers were threatened by the plant-based revolution, they haven’t seen anything yet

Sylvain CharleboisFor thousands of years, humans have had to kill animals to eat meat. This is no longer the case – at least in Singapore. Cultured meat is now legal in the city-state.

The Singapore Food Agency has approved chicken nuggets from a San Francisco-based company called Eat Just, which is known for its cultured meat. This is a world first, according to the agency.

Experts in food science, toxicology, nutrition, epidemiology and other fields in Singapore have deemed the product safe for human consumption.

So now laboratories are making meat. Indeed, synthetic agriculture appears to be the new frontier in food.

The cell-cultured chicken will be licensed to a local manufacturer and sold under the GOOD Meat brand. Most products will be sold to restaurants.

No animals are killed to make the product. The process begins with cell isolation, where cells are sourced from a live animal. Cultured cells are then transferred into a bioreactor. A mix of proteins, amino acids, minerals, sugars, salts and other nutrients are added, then the product is harvested after it achieves enough density.

It’s intriguing but simple. The process allows anyone to design the perfect meat product, from iron-rich chicken to pork with all the vitamins you need. Anything is possible.

The timing is no coincidence and numerous factors are behind this technology.

Consider what happened in abattoirs around the Western world during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with several plant closures, vulnerabilities and disruptions in the supply chain. It seems these problems can be avoided with lab-produced meat alternatives.

This is particularly interesting for the cattle and hog sectors, which are still dealing with overwhelming backlogs caused by processing plant closures in the spring and summer. Quebec hog producers have had to sell more than 95,000 hogs to the United States in recent weeks to ease some inventory pressures.

Food safety and the several recalls we’ve seen in livestock-related industries could be prevented as well. The largest recall in Canadian history was from XL Foods in 2012, when millions of kilograms of possibly contaminated meat were dumped. The 2008 Maple Leaf listeriosis outbreak killed 22 Canadians who had eaten cold cuts from an ill-maintained slicing machine. From a food safety and supply chain perspective, meat processing presents numerous risks.

But cultured meat is still a relatively new concept. Evaluating risks from a food product entirely manufactured in a synthetic environment can bring a significant number of regulatory obstacles. Whether these products need to be labelled is also up for debate.

Canada has yet to consider any of these products, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has. Support for these products by powerful lobby groups could be overwhelming in the United States and that makes the likelihood of legalizing cultured meat high.

Once the products are approved in the United States, it would just be a question of time for approval in Canada.

With the race for approval of COVID-19 vaccines, cultured meat approval may be delayed. But it may still happen within two or three years, especially since cultured meat will sell for the same price as regular meat in Singapore.

Strangely enough, food appears to be going in two directions.

On one hand, the effort to promote local and natural foods is stronger than ever amid the pandemic. People want to eat local, and to celebrate and cook real food.

But an influx of new agri-food investors with different ideas has set the sector on a very different path, with different values. Some are trying to reshape our food systems by addressing some of the inherent flaws in the sector.

The meat industry has attracted criticism for its impact on climate change. While some of the criticism is highly questionable, animal-rights activists increasingly point to issues related to animal production and the ethical treatment of livestock. The bucolic and authentic yearnings of agriculture also clash with urban-centric views about how agriculture should be perfectly flawless.

In a recent survey, barely 22 per cent of Canadians said they would be willing to try cultured meat. However, most Canadians were raised with the idea that our supplies of meat were endless.

In countries like Singapore, where food sovereignty is a work in progress, cultured meat is a serious issue. The city-state wants to produce 30 per cent of its consumed meat domestically and labs will provide the farms it needs to do this.

These technologies mean we could dream of supplying developing countries with affordable sources of animal proteins. Of course, genetic engineering made similar promises many years ago and we’re still waiting for results.

Once all risks are fully assessed, the case for lab-grown meat is undeniably strong. Having these products sold in Canada is just a question of time.

If our livestock farmers were threatened by the plant-based revolution, they haven’t seen anything yet.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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