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The Future of Food: Are we ready for the all-beef, zero-cow burger?

(Mainichi/Katsuyuki Uchibayashi)

TOKYO -- Would you eat a chicken nugget that had never been part of an animal that went "cluck"? How about a cheeseburger whose beef has had less to do with an actual cow than the cheddar melting over it?

This is, of course, cultured meat -- genuine flesh that simply has not come from an animal. Also known as clean meat, slaughter-free meat or lab-grown meat, it is created from cell cultures in labs and in bioreactors, immersed in solutions containing all the materials it needs to grow, leaving the original tissue donor alive and blissfully uneaten.

Perhaps the idea of putting your beef bourguignon or Bolognese sauce in the hands of biotech makes you uneasy. And maybe you're an ethical vegetarian who sees the budding technology as a morally palatable path back to pastrami on rye.

"I think that it's best to present cultured meat as another food option. Each person can decide based on their own thinking whether to eat it," said 30-year-old Japanese biologist Keisuke Igarashi.

Igarashi is a onetime core member of "Shojinmeat," a shifting collection of research scientists, academics, self-described bio-hackers, simple enthusiasts and even a smattering of teenagers working on technology for regular consumers to grow cultured chicken meat at home. Gathering one night a week at a shared workspace in Tokyo's Shibuya district, they are also looking to spread the word on the potentially revolutionary food source through workshops as well as scientific art, manga and anime -- "subculture products that make the subject approachable," said Igarashi.

Cultured meat made its initial major media splash in 2013 when the world's first slaughter-free hamburger was unveiled in London by Mark Post from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, as much for its 250,000-euro cost as for the promise of the technology.

Now, Mosa Meat -- a startup founded by the people behind that first burger -- projects that the same patty will cost 9 euros (about 1,100 yen) to make once production is scaled up, and can be pushed under 1 euro (123 yen) in the next 10 years. "Ultimately, cultured meat should be cheaper than conventional meat given its production is more efficient," the firm says on its website, adding that it is aiming to get its lab burgers onto the market in the next three to four years. And it is not alone.

Cell Based Tech, a New York-based site tracking biotech developments in the food sector, now lists 25 cultured meat companies worldwide. Israeli firm Aleph Farms unveiled the world's first lab-grown steak late last year, while San Francisco-based Just is working to put cultured chicken nuggets into kitchens, to mention just a few.

But why go through the trouble and expense? There is the ethical argument, that it is at the very least distasteful to raise animals simply to kill them. However, the less debateable answer is the already outsized environmental footprint of conventional meat production.

There will be some 3.5 billion more mouths to feed on our planet by 2100, when the world's population will hit 11.2 billion, according to a United Nations estimate. Furthermore, the growing global middle class is already stoking demand for more meat, though still at levels far lower than in the world's high-income countries, according to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Even now, the FAO reports that livestock farming accounts for a hefty 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions -- equivalent to some 7.1 metric gigatons of CO2.

Chicken tissue samples in culture solution are seen at the Shojinmeat group's small lab in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward. (Mainichi/Robert Sakai-Irvine)

"Our current agricultural land simply cannot supply the global human population with the quantities of animal protein we currently eat, still less what we are anticipated to consume," says Tara Garnett, of the University of Oxford's Food Climate Research Network. "If increases in meat and dairy demand were allowed to continue unchecked, forests would need to be felled and existing pastures intensified or ploughed up for feed crop production, causing devastating CO2 release and increases in methane and nitrous oxide emissions."

This litany of woe might make it tempting to put down your fork and back away from that steak -- or any other edible ruminant -- permanently. However, a 2017 FAO report notes that meat "provides high-quality protein and a variety of micronutrients, such as iron, vitamin A, iodine and zinc, many of which are difficult to obtain in adequate quantities from foods of plant origin. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal source foods." So an all-veggie diet is not a perfect solution.

Which brings the conversation back to cultured meat. A 2011 study by researchers from the universities of Oxford and Amsterdam projected that, depending on the type of meat, slaughter-free products would require 82-96% less water, 99% less land and cause the release of 78-96% less CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas than conventional animal products.

However, as a nascent industry, there is "considerable uncertainty over the ability of CM (cultured meat) to deliver the environmental and ethical claims the sector has made to date," Alexandra Sexton, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford's Martin Programme on the Future of Food, noted in an email interview with The Mainichi. "Until more detail is known on how production might scale it is very difficult to model its impacts in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water and land use."

Igarashi also emphasized that, while Shojinmeat makes an effort to inform people about cultured meat's lower greenhouse gas emissions and water use, he does not believe the technology "will solve our environmental problems." It will have an impact, but environmental issues are far more complicated than meat or even the food sector overall, he stressed.

Meanwhile, the battle for consumer favor is already underway. In February 2018, the U.S. Cattlemen's Association (USCA) filed a petition with federal regulators demanding that products labeled "meat" be limited to those from an animal "harvested in the traditional manner," and explicitly excluding "man-made or artificially manufactured products" such as any "grown in labs from animal cells."

In Japan, Shojinmeat member Mayu Sugisaki told The Mainichi that some of her friends had misunderstood that cultured meat was genetically modified and called it "scary" and "disgusting." Another told her that they worried eating slaughter-free meat would eliminate the deep gratitude felt for food that has come from another living thing.

Professor Mark Post presents the first cultured meat beef patty in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Mosa Meat)

Oxford's Sexton noted that research shows that "naturalness," corporate control, and food safety "are commonly cited concerns" when it comes to cultured meat. However, "it is very difficult to get a sense of whether people will eat CM until there are products available to try and buy," she said.

Getting people used to these products is one of the missions of Shojinmeat, but Igarashi -- now working for a spinoff start-up called IntegriCulture and as representative director at the fledgling nonprofit group Cellular Agriculture Institute of the Commons -- told The Mainichi that despite that, he doesn't want to see cultured meat replace its conventional forbearers entirely.

"There are traditions attached to meat, and it's important to preserve the cultural practices that have grown up around killing animals, which has helped humans survive through history." However, he hopes for a "larger role" for cultured meat if "we as a species decide that it is more environmentally friendly" and it reflects individuals' convictions.

If slaughter-free meats take off, it could also threaten the livelihoods of traditional meat producers worldwide, including tens of thousands in Japan alone, who may not find it easy or even possible to find a place in a sector dominated by the new technology, pointed out Oxford's Sexton.

The other side of that coin, however, is the "potential for radical shifts in what the land is used for," said Sexton, listing alternatives including biodiversity parks, agriculture, and new and replanted forests. She cautioned, however, that "the cultural, economic and environmental trade-offs of these shifts must not be underestimated and treated as silver bullet solutions."

In short, so radical a technology as cultured meat could create waves of disruption on multiple levels, from the everyday to the global, and it is difficult to see all potential outcomes -- the positive, the harmful, and the just complicated. But it is also possible to imagine that, in the not too distant future, you will be able to sit back in your chair on a restaurant patio, looking out over a green wilderness that was once pastureland, sipping a drink as you wait for a juicy beef burger that no animal died to bring to your plate. It seems so close you can almost taste it.

(By Robert Sakai-Irvine, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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