The recent growth in the vegan industry has been driven by an increasing understanding of the best food choices for health and of the environmental burden created by the production of animal products. Simon Horsford visits the University of Bath and discovers that the production of cultured meat might soon be a commercial option
How would you feel if the sausages you had for breakfast or your Sunday roast originated not from a local farm, but from a laboratory and had been created not by a farmer but by white-coated scientists?
No, this is not some nightmare scenario, but is all part of finding ways to make for a more sustainable future with the UK’s efforts in the field being led by the University of Bath’s head of chemical engineering, Dr Marianne Ellis. Ellis, who is also a senior lecturer in biochemical engineering at the university, believes cultured meat, or ‘clean meat’ as it is also known, can be an alternative protein source to feed the world.
When we meet in her office at the university, near her laboratory marked with a large sign warning ‘Bio-Hazard’, I ask if this is a real possibility?
“I think it is,” she replies confidently. “We know we need to diversify our food sources and also make our food production methods more sustainable and efficient and cultured meat could one day be an option we have.
“There are quite likely to be places in the world where it could be the main source of protein because they don’t have the climate or the available land space, such as in slums in India, refugee camps on the African continent, the favelas in Brazil and high-density areas, such as those outside of Beijing, which are designed entirely for living and not food production.”
The point about sustainability was forcibly brought home in 2019 in a disquieting BBC documentary, Meat: A Threat to our Planet. In it the wildlife biologist Liz Bonnin showed how meat production was impacting on the planet (the world consumes an astonishing 55 billion animals a year). One third of our crop yield is also used to feed animals.
Visiting an American ‘feed yard’ that housed some 50,000 cattle, and pig farms in North Carolina, where the corporate philosophy repeated by one farmer was to “produce as much as you can as fast as you can”, Bonnin highlighted the fact that the meat industry produces more greenhouse gas than all of our transport systems. From the effects of toxic pig waste on rivers to the destruction of natural habitats, our love of food is proving unhealthy and damaging.
Ellis fears that by current rates we would need something like an additional 60 million tonnes of protein to feed the population by 2050 and she warns, “we can’t do that like we currently do”.
However, last year a report by the global consultancy AT Kearney suggested that most of the meat people will eat in 2040 will not come from slaughtered animals. It proposes that 60 per cent will either be grown in vats, or be replaced by plant-based products that look and taste like meat.
What is ‘clean meat’?
So if cultured meat is seen as a possible solution to the problem, what actually is it? Essentially a biopsy is taken from a pig, or a cow and then muscle cells from the sample are grown on a ‘scaffold’ – Ellis and her team are currently experimenting with grass. This is then placed in a bio-reactor (so the cells are kept ‘clean’, hence ‘clean meat’), where they are fed a solution of glucose, amino acids, vitamins and salt, which Ellis has in the past referred to as ‘Lucozade mixture’.
Ellis adds that, in theory, you can take cells from any animal. “Studies are being done looking at what animals would be the best source and how quickly they grow – chicken and turkey are quite fast. We are also looking at fish and shellfish.”
“In the early stages the cells look like a yellow goop,” says Ellis, “and aren’t particularly appetising, but this is then used as an ingredient for a more palatable food item. This is quite a simple formulation that is well established so you can make burgers, sausages, chicken nuggets or pâtés – foods that have emulsified, or been pulled together, and are not in their natural state.”
I wondered if a cultured joint of beef could be on the menu in the future – “yes,” says Ellis cautiously, “you could because you could utilise 3D printing, so it would look similar, but at the moment we are some way off that.”
The effect on farmers
Ellis is also the co-founder, together with Illtud Dunsford, of Cellular Agriculture, a biotech start-up. Dunsford comes from a long line of farmers in Wales and over the years has been heavily involved in animal health, welfare and genetics along with food production and food policy. He is an advocate of traditional agriculture, but says there will be a need in the future to manage farmland for nature, with cattle playing a role, albeit in much smaller numbers.
“In my little farm in West Wales,” he says, “ideally what I’d like to see is that we kept a range of traditional native breeds of livestock on a very small scale to an exceptionally high welfare standard. The by-product from their use as a land management tool – whether that’s in clearing land or restoring grasslands – would be the harvesting of cells for the culturing of cell-based meats.”
Making it large-scale
The first lab-grown burger was made by a Dutch company in 2013 (at a cost of $300,000) and Israel followed in 2017 with the first ‘minute steak’ (and it really was tiny – just three millimetres wide.
“Where we are leading the way,” says Ellis “is in process design and this will enable companies to grow [the meat] on a much larger scale. The big challenge is having a system that you can grow enough to feed large numbers of people.”
Other companies around the world are also using plant ingredients to create burgers, but Ellis notes that “if you are a meat eater you can tell the difference. You just don’t have that umami with a plant.”
I wondered what the ‘gloop’ they have made so far might taste like and how flavour is introduced. “There is some taste within it,” says Ellis.”I haven’t tried it yet, but at a tasting launch a couple of years ago, Dunsford tried a recipe containing the muscle cells as a protein component.” Apparently it was a bit like chicken. “You get the flavour by adding other ingredients, such as fat or oil. Interestingly, there are companies looking to produce fat cells, so you would then combine the two.”
One advantage of cultured meat is that, according to Ellis, it will have a very long shelf life as it is “cleaner and more sterile”. Also from a practical point of view, as muscle has a bigger density than plants, Ellis suggests that “you wouldn’t need to eat as much cultured meat as you would a plant-based one to get the same amount of protein. So in this case it is good for people who need a high-calorie, high-protein intake on a small amount of food, or it could be used for refugee food packs.”
What about the animals?
One ethical hurdle is how the cells are extracted from the animals. “Cell sourcing is still under investigation,” adds Ellis. “One idea is taking [the biopsy] from a live animal and that is still being investigated by vet scientists, although you only take a relatively small amount. The other stage we have been looking at with Dunsford is working with biopsies post-cull, after it has been slaughtered for food so you can take a bigger amount.” At the moment Ellis’ team is sourcing the cells from the Institute of Biology, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University.
As regards animal welfare groups, those Ellis has had interaction with see the idea of cultured meat as a positive step and an opportunity to reduce the number of animals in the food chain. Most of the resistance, it appears, has largely come from farmers, who see it as a threat to their livelihood. “Our approach in the UK and Europe is that it is an opportunity, so it is about having those conversations,” says Ellis. And as Dunsford has said, as a farmer he has to adapt his 300-year-old farm to make money and this could be one of the ways to stay as a viable business.
Ellis also claims there are a lot of vegetarians and vegans who are supportive of developing this field “because this form of meat is just muscle cells and that is ok.”
Ellis, who has lived in and around Bath “forever… since I was a student here” declares she is a meat eater, “but I try to limit the amount now to maybe two or three times a week. I’m very selective where I buy, too, and go to farm shops such as Lowden, Neston and Hartley, which all have highly ethical meat products.
“Also if I go out for dinner now, if it’s not clear on the menu that it is ethically sourced, I will assume that it is not and go vegetarian.” A meal out might be at The Crown in Bathford, Il Vello D’Oro near Melksham, or Yum Yum Thai or Yak Yeti Yak in Bath.
Behind all the fears about the impact of our meat-eating habits, so much of which is a part of our history and culture, Ellis believes “there is always a risk of going too far as to how we manage food and our environment. We can be very idealistic and utopian about how we think the world could look. Also, if we have have fewer animals, we also have to think about the other products we get from them, such as lanolin from sheep’s wool.”
And Ellis cautions that it won’t be cheap to start with as the technology is still very new. “The goal is to get it [the end product] down to price parity for an everyday consumer. The issue is that the method we use – tissue engineering – originated from a high-value industry and the making of medical products. So we are taking quite an expensive process and using it to grow something that we need to make inexpensive. But as chemical engineers we will develop that process to eventually make it cheaper.” She adds that one day the mechanism for creating cultured meat will be highly transferable and could be done anywhere in the world.
“We have had workshops with Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) as to how we price the cultured meat to reflect its true value.”
Ellis also pointed out that questions have been asked about the health issues caused by highly processed foods and how much it is costing the NHS. So, perhaps, cultured meat could also be one of the keys to solving this problem.
As we wander around Marianne Ellis’ lab, wearing blue visitor coats and safety goggles, peering at test tubes and incubators, it all seems a long way from somewhere that a sirloin steak or some bacon might eventually emerge. Even renowned experimental chef Heston Blumenthal might be scratching his head. But if it paves the way for a more sustainable, healthier and less destructive future, then the work of Dr Marianne Ellis and her team looks ever more important.