While the commercialisation of lab-grown meat may be seen by some to be edging ever closer, there are several barriers that may mean the viability of the new technology is not as great as hoped, say researchers.
A new study from the Netherlands suggests that while cultured meat producers can perhaps overcome issues in consumer perceptions by approaching a 'small scale' and local approach to lab-grown meat production could help to overcome many consumer fears - the economic feasibility of such plans could be the greatest threat to the technology.
"Cultured meat has great moral promise," explained the research team, writing in Trends in Biotechnology. "Worries about its unnaturalness might be met through small-scale production methods that allow close contact with cell-donor animals and thereby reverse feelings of alienation."
From a technological perspective, this ‘village-scale’ production is also a promising option, said the team - led by Professor Johannes Tramper of Wageningen University.
"From an economic point of view, however, competition with ‘normal’ meat is a big challenge; production cost emerges as the real problem," said the team. "For cultured meat to become competitive, the price of conventional meat must increase greatly."
The authors noted that rising global demand for meat will result in increased environmental pollution, energy consumption, and animal suffering. The idea of cultured meat - produced in an animal-cell cultivation process - is a technically feasible alternative lacking these disadvantages, provided that an animal-component-free growth medium can be developed, they said.
"As large parts of the world become more prosperous, the global consumption of meat is expected to rise enormously in the coming decades," wrote Tramper and his team. "Cultured meat is therefore increasingly seen as a hopeful addition to the set of alternative protein sources."
Though such potential advantages of cultured meat are clear, they do not guarantee that people will want to eat it, the team added.
"For example, a returning suggestion in societal debates is that cultured meat might deter people because it is ‘unnatural’ ... We argue that there is reason to think that a scenario that involves small-scale local factories is not only technologically feasible but may also meet with societal approval."
Indeed, the team reported that workshop discussions and media responses after Mark Post's hamburger presentation "suggest that many people regard cultured meat as a hopeful idea given their moral doubts about ‘normal’ meat."
They suggested that a cultured meat scenario that generated not ambivalence but great enthusiasm among workshop participants was one in which pigs in backyards or on animal-friendly (urban) farms would serve as the living donors of muscle stem cells through biopsies.
"These pigs live happy lives as companion animals while their cells are cultured in local meat factories," they said. "Worries of cultured meat being unnatural, too technological, or alienating were absent here; the idea of local production and close contact with the animals seemed to dispel these concerns."
When it comes to the economics of cultured meat, however, it is a different story.
Tramper and his colleagues noted that animal cells can currently be cultured in suspension in bioreactors up to a size of 20 m3. They calculated that that in the Netherlands, the price of minced meat "is not much more than €5 per kg." However, per run, at least 20 m3 of medium is needed, corresponding to a cost of €1 million - equating to a cost of €391 per kg of cultured meat.
"A price of €1,000 per m3 is considered to be the absolute minimum for growth medium," the team added. "In that case, the medium costs for 1 kg of cultured meat would be €8; and this price accounts for only the growth medium."
"This is already an ambitious goal, but not enough to make cultured meat competitive with conventional meat. For that, an order-of-magnitude increase in the price of the latter would be needed."
Source: Trends in Biotechnology
Volume 32, Issue 6, p294–296, June 2014, doi: 10.1016/j.tibtech.2014.04.009
"Cultured meat: every village its own factory?"
Authors: Cor van der Weele, Johannes Tramper