The room was full of cattlemen. Those from Western Canada were conspicuous in their cowboy boots and hats. All were there to learn about industry news. Perhaps, though, they weren’t thrilled to hear that Cargill (one of North America’s largest beef processors) also invests millions into the cultured protein market.
Cultured meat is otherwise known as lab meat, test tube meat or clean meat (a name some beef farmers refuse to use.)
However, Cargill’s Manager of Growth Ventures and Strategic Pricing, Sonya Roberts, is a wise lady, adding the company also invested $600 million in conventional protein sources last year. Truth is, said Roberts, in the exploding population to come, there is room for both kinds of meat.
In fact, she urged beef farmers at the Canadian Beef Industry Conference held in London recently to “lean into innovation” and “be curious.”
The “be curious” was presented with a light-hearted tone but it was a direct challenge to replace fear with opportunity.
I’m not a beef farmer and I won’t pretend to have a pulse on the room but I suspect that many of the men and women who spend their lives raising cattle are skeptical and perhaps even afraid of the concept of cultured meat.
Conjured in stem cells inside a laboratory, fed a diet that includes fetal bovine serum, injected with antibiotics to stay alive, cultured meat is a curious product. Muscle and fat cells, connective tissue, blood and other components are produced via cell culture, known as “cellular agriculture”. It works. It has been done. People have eaten it and say cultured meat does, indeed, taste like meat.
Scientifically, it’s way cool. Imagine one day having a mini laboratory on your counter that is slowly growing a mass of meat for supper. Well... that kind of gave me a creepy feeling, actually.
Scientists have more to explore before mini-consumer labs become a reality. What has yet to be accomplished is producing cultured meat affordably. The first lab meat “burger” cost over $300,000 in 2013. Five years later, the cost of one test tube burger had dropped to the $12 range – still too expensive to go mainstream.
Commercially, the growth medium required to sustain the cells is too expensive. Currently, stem cells are fed fetal bovine serum (lab meat is NOT a vegan option). Work is being done to develop a plant-based growth medium. What plants will be used? Will they grow here? Will they cause allergic reactions in consumers?
Questions arise out of curiosity and these questions need to be asked, said Roberts. With the moniker “clean meat” being used by media to describe stem cell meat, it creates a picture of a product that is healthier or potentially better than traditional meat. Is it? I’d certainly question that. Is it healthier if all the natural ways meat forms on a cow has to be replicated in a petrie dish, in a sterile environment, monitored by machines? Cells are fed nutrients but are not exposed to the natural and healthy elements of sunlight, water, air and feed from nutrient-rich soils like living, breathing cattle.
It’s a complex and surreal situation which means it is the perfect time to be curious and ask questions about ethics, health and social values.
We also need to be curious about the future, suggested Roberts. Growth curves suggest the world population will exceed nine billion people in 2050. How will we feed all those people?
Innovation leads to good things, believes Roberts who challenged farmers in the group to consider how their farm practices compare to the workflow in their grandfather’s time. Improvements in genetics, feed rations and management are producing finished cattle quicker than ever.
Innovation isn’t something to be afraid of when approached with curiosity and a mindset that there is room for everyone in the food space, she suggested.
Consumer choice is now a given. From vegetarians to carnivores to the next lexicon of flexitarians (vegetarians who occasionally choose meat), we get to choose how to nourish our bodies.
Those of us who are unabashedly carnivores will always enjoy a big, juicy steak searing on a hot barbecue. The flavour of a good steak is incomparable. I have no desire to eat lab meat other than ... curiosity.
So I left the cattlemen’s conference with a good taste in my mouth (and not only because they served real meat!). An inquisitive spirit leads to learning, acceptance and opportunity to discover where we fit into the future food, economic and social space. Be curious. Brilliant. ◊