The Protein of Tomorrow, Today
Believe it or not, it’s been 6 years since scientists created the world’s first lab-grown beef burger, all without the cow.
As it nears its supermarket debut, researchers around the world are joining the cellular agriculture movement and growing all sorts of animal products, including delicacies such as foie gras and bluefin tuna, without the animal.
As the global population continues to rise, meat production is becoming unsustainable.
One alternative to traditional food systems is growing meat without the animal--through mammalian cell culture, or the process of growing animal cells in vitro in a flask or dish.
The first step in this process is to obtain a small number of animal cells from high-quality livestock. Then, cells that naturally contain the desired food attribute (superior taste, texture, ability to self renew) are selected. The cells are then able to recreate the essential conditions that exist inside an animal’s body, but without the animal itself.
The end product would technically be the same as a “typical” meat, but could have a significant impact on reducing land/water usage, as well as pollution.
It’s no surprise, then, that beef seems to be the most common protein that food companies are trying to replace since it is known for being the most inefficient meat to produce and one of the biggest contributors to global warming.
But, is it possible to grow more than beef without the animal?
Whether you fancy a luxurious Kobe steak or deep fried chicken nuggets, you’ll likely have the option to eat them slaughter-free in the coming years.
For example, last December, US startup JUST announced a partnership with Toriyama Ranch, a Japanese producer of Wagyu beef -- a type of meat that includes the coveted Kobe steaks. JUST will use the Wagyu cells to grow meat, initially in the form of ground meat.
They’re also working on growing chicken nuggets. However, it still needs perfecting. A BBC reporter that tasted a prototype nugget described it as tasting like chicken, but without the same texture.
Most companies are focusing on making processed forms of meat -- be it beef, pork or poultry.
“Processed” meat (like hamburgers and sausages) gets around the difficulties of mimicking the actual structure of a meat cut, but some startups are actually taking on the challenge.
In December, the Israeli company Aleph Farms offered a taste of the first lab-grown steak. The small pieces were only ½ centimeter thick, but the company sees the pieces as an important step towards being able to make larger cuts.
A great challenge for most of these startups is that the technology of cell culture was originally designed for medical applications. In medicine, there is no need to produce cells at the massive scale required to make meat nor do they need to prioritize keeping costs low in order to scale.
Thankfully, these pioneering companies are making it easier for more players to enter the field. There are now protocols for how to make muscle from stem cells, which was impossible to find five years ago.
We predict that when the first products arrive to the market, there will be a huge wave of new startups and technology companies that follow.
SEAFOOD WITHOUT THE CATCH
If you can grow beef and pork, why not fish and seafood?
The oceans would benefit from a break from the huge environmental impact produced by intensive fishing.
Even if fish is sustainably produced, transporting it across the globe creates high prices and a negative environmental impact. In the future, companies could “grow” any fish locally.
Because the costs are the same to create a tilapia versus a fancier bluefin tuna, Finless Foods has made the conscious decision to work on producing the most expensive fish.
The exorbitant price that bluefin tuna can reach (earlier this year, one specimen was sold for a record €2.8M) has also led to illegal overfishing to the extent that bluefin tuna is considered to be an endangered species.
Growing bluefin tuna in a lab could save the entire species from extinction.
Fish cells are shockingly easier to work with when compared to mammalian cells. Fish cells require lower temperatures and they can replicate indefinitely -- something only stem cells can do in mammals.
It might seem strange, but scientists can also control for personalized nutrition needs, such as higher omega-3 content and different ratios of protein and fat--all customized to any dietary needs or wishes.
The technology could even be leveraged to make fugu, a Japanese delicacy that can be deadly if prepared incorrectly. Through lab cultivation, fugu can be created entirely without poison, without endangering anyone.
TAKING OVER THE FOOD INDUSTRY
No single delicacy seems to be out of reach for cultured meat companies.
Suprême wants to reinvent the most controversial French delicacy -- foie gras. Today, understandably, a vast majority of consumers (including the French) reject the way foie gras is produced.
Founded just at the end of last year, Suprême is developing a method to obtain foie gras using cells taken from duck eggs. They claim to have been successful in reproducing the effects of forced feeding at the cellular level, obtaining fatty liver cells without hurting any animals. Their goal is to offer a ready-to-eat gourmet product by 2023.
Even everyday commodities such as eggs and milk will soon have counterparts created from cultured cells rather than animals.
The company Clara Foods is growing an egg white product that is expected to launch at the end of the year, while startup Perfect Day recently signed a partnership with a big food processor to produce dairy protein through smart fermentation rather than milking.
In only a few years, cellular agriculture has moved from just a few curious academics to numerous companies seeking to challenge the status quo in the food industry.
Food is an emotional and an essential part of our identity. Startups are on an exhilarating mission to accelerate the transition towards a new food system for everyone -- not just the vegans.
WHAT SHOULD WE EXPECT IN THE NEAR FUTURE?
Many of the companies mentioned in this article plan to start entering restaurants and supermarkets within the next few years.
However, there still is a lack of knowledge about cultured meat, which many worry could translate to consumers overlooking these products when they hit grocery shelves.
Greater awareness of cultured meat and its advantages will hopefully translate to a willingness to purchase and consume these products.
Consumers are certainly interested in the possibility of avoiding the antibiotics, hormones, and diseases found in conventional meat.
They’re also increasingly conscious of the environmental harm caused by meat production, as well as animal cruelty.
It’s clear that cultured protein is going to change the world.
It’s going to change how we view meat, how food is produced, what types of food are produced, where food is produced, and consumers’ demands.
Lab-grown meat will continue to bring forth startups with fresh ideas and important scientific expertise.
Through this rapid and advanced innovation, it’s important to understand the value of patenting ideas, processes, and technologies.
Take Memphis Meats, for example, a Silicon Valley startup funded by Bill Gates and Richard Branson. They currently have two US patent applications.
The most recent, published in January of this year, describes methods to promote the reproduction of mammalian cells in a lab process -- a technology that would help them produce more meat from a single batch of cells.
Avoid getting lost in the turmoil. If you have any questions whatsoever about patenting your technology, if your technology can be patented, or even how to start the patent process, don’t hesitate to contact us.
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