Is laboratory grown meat beyond meat

Laboratory meat: production, advantages and disadvantages

Schnitzel, chicken breast, sausages: meat is one of the most popular foods among Germans. But factory farming takes its toll on animals and the environment. Researchers therefore breed meat in the laboratory and hope for many future buyers.

It should be juicy, have a spicy, salty taste and look natural like conventional meat. But at the moment the steak of the future is little more than a pile of cells. Thousands of small bubbles crowd together like frog spawn, only visible in tens of times magnification on the computer screen.

"Please do not take photos," says Didier Toubia in his laboratory in an industrial park south of Tel Aviv. After all, the 45-year-old Israeli and his start-up Aleph Farms are researching a possible revolution in meat production: Meat from the laboratory, grown from stem cells from cows.

Laboratory meat as an alternative

A fundamental discussion has long broken out about eating meat. Healthy, yes or no? And if so, how much? Is it morally okay for animals to suffer and die for it? And what about the impact of steak consumption on the climate? High-tech pioneers want to solve at least some of the problems by raising meat. What should then be put on the plate never stood in the form as a piece of an animal in the stable or on the pasture.

Researchers and entrepreneurs are working on such products in several places around the world. Start-ups are one of the furthest in Israel. When you visit there, you meet developers who seem very optimistic. But you also come across questions that still need to be clarified.

For the climate and against cruelty to animals

"The company's mission is to produce better food for people," says Didier Toubia, wearing a white lab coat over his shirt, glasses and a kippa on his head. He points to the influence of industrial meat production on nature and the climate: "With regard to the environment, beef is the most pressing issue."

It currently takes 10,000 to 15,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of beef - including the water to grow the seeds for the fodder, he explains. "Animal husbandry is also responsible for 15 percent of greenhouse gases - which is more than the global transport industry."

It is also about reducing animal suffering in mass farming. "I think that more and more consumers are becoming aware of this issue," says Toubia, who describes himself as a flexitarian. That means: he eats meat, but rather little and is always on the lookout for a meat-free alternative.

Meat breeding within four weeks

For the laboratory meat, certain stem cells are taken from a cattle, as the researcher explains. This is the name of cells that divide and develop in different directions. In a nutrient solution, they should multiply in such a way that a piece of meat is produced within three or four weeks.

In the laboratory, Toubia stands in front of two white blocks that look like small refrigerators. "These are our cows," he says and laughs. In these incubators there are petri dishes with reddish solutions in which the cells are located. "Outside of the cow, we reproduce the conditions for the cells to divide and produce tissues under controlled conditions," says the biologist. In the process, this includes the body temperature of the animal.

In 2016 he founded his small company - together with the Strauss Group, an Israeli food manufacturer, and the Technion research institute. Ten people are currently working for the start-up, mainly cell biologists and experts in tissue engineering.

Growing a steak is difficult

Toubia's company is one of several start-ups worldwide that deal with the topic of in vitro meat. In 2013, the Dutch researcher Mark Post presented the first meatball made from cattle stem cells in London. "The latest state of the art in 'clean meat' is to grow a mass of cells," says Toubia. Mainly muscle fibers, but also fat to mix it up. That's why most companies would rely on hamburgers, for example. So hack.

"In contrast, we are concentrating on developing a complex tissue that is much more like the original muscle tissue." Just a steak. For this, among other things, the cells have to develop into four different types. Is that enough to taste "real"? After all, the taste of high-quality meat also depends on the breed and age of the animal, how it was fed, how much it could move and much more.

A question of money

The start-up received around 2.1 million euros from the Strauss Group and investors in the USA, Great Britain and Israel. It is currently striving for a further 6.9 million euros.

Apart from the stem cells, Aleph Farms claims that it no longer uses any other animal products - for example for the nutrient solution. From the point of view of experts, this is an important step. Now they are working on the first prototype, says Toubia. "It will probably take two years to complete development of the product." In the second half of 2021, they would plan the first, still expensive, deliveries to restaurants. In seven or eight years the price will be comparable to conventional meat, he hopes.

Petri dish and steak: Aleph Farms has been researching a meat alternative since 2016. (Source: Ilia Yechimovich / dpa)

Supermeat relies on chickens

Ido Savir and his start-up Supermeat - translated as super meat - are only a few rooms away from Aleph Farms. Supermeat was also founded at the end of 2015 with the idea of ​​breeding meat. However, the researchers aim to produce meat tissue from chicken and duck cells. This will later be used to make meatballs, sausages, chicken nuggets and salami.

"We believe that this approach will allow us to go to market much earlier," says Savir, short brown hair, three-day beard, black shirt. And: "Chicken is the fastest growing meat category everywhere. Some don't eat cows, some don't eat pork, but everyone eats chicken," he says of meat fans.

The 40-year-old is reluctant to look into his work. A visit to the laboratory is not possible, he says. But one thing is clear for the vegan: later on, he will also want to eat his home-grown meat product.

Support from Wiesenhof

Supermeat would like to be on the market with the goods in three years - also in Germany. The start-up has so far raised around 3.4 million euros in capital. At the beginning of the year, the parent company of the poultry farmer Wiesenhof, the PHW Group, acquired shares in the company. The Cordesmeyer family has also invested a mid-six-figure amount through their own venture capital company. Their company Hemelter Mühle produces flour near the Dutch border.

The poultry giant PHW is not only investing money in supermeat. "Wiesenhof helps us with research and development," says Savir. The company contributes its extensive knowledge of poultry products. "That helps us to better understand what we want to achieve." How should the laboratory meat taste, what should the consistency be?

Focus on proteins

PHW is concerned with a variety of protein sources, i.e. proteins - beyond conventional meat, as board member Marcus Keitzer says. Vegan products, plant-based meat substitutes, vegan fish substitutes. "We don't want to be black and white," says Keitzer. "At the end of the day, I want to offer the customer high quality protein products seven days a week." That could be the classic Wiesenhof chicken breast, but also meat substitutes made from plants and, at some point, meat from the retort.

Frank Cordesmeyer argues with the massive population growth worldwide - and the increasing need for protein. "The problem is quite simply that our world will no longer be able to produce raw materials the way we are doing at the moment," says Cordesmeyer, managing director of the venture capital company.

At the moment, proteins are no longer sustainably produced if, for example, rainforests were cut down in Brazil in order to plant soy, which would then be brought to Europe for the animal feed industry. "That is insanely inefficient," says Cordesmeyer. Laboratory meat, often called clean meat, is a possible alternative, at least for parts of the market.

Worldwide meat consumption is increasing

The company Supermeat is one of the three most advanced start-ups in the field, estimates Cordesmeyer, who is also involved in the global expert committee Cellular Agriculture Society. "We are seeing more and more clean meat companies establishing themselves," says the baker and food technologist. "But the strongholds are clearly Holland, Israel and San Francisco."

Anne Mottet, animal husbandry developer at the United Nations, also says: Worldwide meat consumption will continue to rise in the coming years. "If we want to increase production, then we have to produce more with less," demands Mottet.

German meat consumption is falling

There is currently a slight countermovement in consumption in Germany. Although meat is still one of the most popular foods, the average person has recently eaten less of it. According to the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, consumption fell below 60 kilograms in 2017. The decline is mainly due to a significant decrease in the front-runner pork (around 36 kilos), while poultry (around 12 kilos) and the often expensive beef (10 kilos) increased.

Germans' reluctance to eat meat is in line with the trend in Europe, as Mottet says. There is plenty of information there that too much fatty meat is not healthy - and information about the environmental influences of production. "People think I don't have to eat another steak today," says Mottet.

Silvia Woll from the Karlsruhe research institute KIT sees an open-mindedness for test-tube meat among German consumers - among vegetarians, vegans and meat-eaters. But: "In-vitro meat could be as healthy and cheap as it wants, if it doesn't taste like meat, it won't be bought," says the philosopher with a focus on technology ethics. Another problem is growing the fat cells that are so important for taste.

Mass production could take a lot of energy

Specialist Woll is cautious about future prospects for large-scale industrial production of laboratory meat in the foreseeable future. "There are many questions about in-vitro meat that cannot be answered at the moment, the technology for it is still in its infancy," she says. "It could well happen that it will never make it to the market because it will never be made on a large scale."

It is unclear, for example, to what extent the mass production of laboratory meat would really be so much more environmentally friendly. Large incubators - that is, incubators - could consume a lot of energy.

Fans of laboratory meat emphasize that the product will be significantly healthier because antibiotics are not used. Woll, on the other hand, reports: "Antibiotics were used in the first burger." If the meat is not produced under the extremely sterile conditions in the laboratory, antibiotics against germs are needed. "The cow has an immune system, the cell doesn't."

Company founder Didier Toubia stands in a white coat and gloves next to his white laboratory "cows". His future dream customer is a flexitarian, just like him - meat eater in moderation, environmentally conscious. He is convinced of the future demand for his product. And yet remains pragmatic when he relies on a side by side: "I don't think that conventionally produced meat will completely disappear in the near future."