It may sound like science fiction, but lab-grown meat is already a reality. From the humble beef patty to duck a l’Orange, meat cultured in state-of-the-art laboratories has the potential to transform the global food market and create a new multibillion-dollar industry in the process.

Big business

Although in its infancy, this meat already has some powerful backers, including Bill Gates and Richard Branson. The billionaire businessmen have thrown their weight, and US$17 million, behind a small US company that uses self-replicating stem cells from animals to produce meat.

Fast facts:

It could save the planet
Lab-grown meat could potentially be produced with up to 96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 45% less energy, 99% lower land use, and 96% lower water use than farm-grown meat.

Gates and Branson, along with industry heavyweights Tyson Foods, DFJ, Atomico and Cargill, have invested in Silicon Valley start-up Memphis Meats, which produces beef, chicken and duck directly from animal cells in the lab. Indeed, the company, headed by CEO and former cardiologist Uma Valeti, has produced the world’s first lab-grown meatball made by cultivating cow muscle tissue in a sterile environment. It has also created so-called ‘clean poultry’.

The question marks

Unlike traditional farming, no livestock is slaughtered during the laboratory-based culturing process, making Memphis Meats’ offering ideal for the growing number of consumers worldwide concerned about animal welfare.

Another advantage, according to advocates, is that meat produced in this way requires minimal land, feed and water. Those backing the new ag-tech argue that this makes it more environmentally friendly than farming real-world livestock, which is responsible for around 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations.

For these reasons, the University of Newcastle’s Dr Vincent Candrawinata describes the emerging sector as a potential “game changer” for the worldwide food industry.

The future of food

An expert in cutting-edge food, health and nutrition, Dr Candrawinata says lab-grown meat also has untapped health benefits.

“If it is grown, it can be so much more controlled,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “Right off the bat we can take out cross-contamination, we can take out prion tissue (responsible for diseases such as CJD), we can take out ringworm tissue, we can take out tissue related to salmonella."

“We can also incorporate oil that’s rich with essential fatty acids such as omega-3, 6 and 9. No matter how well you grow a pig you can’t achieve that.”

Manoeuvring to cash in

With so much potential upside, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Memphis Meats is not the only player jostling for position in the burgeoning field.

Other start-ups include Netherlands-based MosaMeat, Brooklyn-based Modern Meadow, Tel Aviv-based SuperMeat and New York-based Finless Foods, which hopes to dish up cultured bluefin tuna by 2019.

But it’s not just the crowded start-up field that makes the product’s potential clear. Just last year, China signed a US$300 million (A$386 million) deal to purchase in-vitro meat grown in Israel in a deal interpreted by some as signalling the Asian superpower’s desire to jump on the ‘clean meat’ bandwagon.

Then there’s Tyson Foods. In addition to taking a stake in Memphis Meats, the Arkansas-headquartered meat giant has a 5% interest in Beyond Meat, a Los Angeles firm that makes plant-based chicken, burgers and sausages.

The challenges

While the business case for lab-grown meat is strong, hurdles remain. One of the big ones, according to the University of Queensland’s Dr Clive Phillips, is that many consumers don’t like the idea of eating meat grown in a petri dish.

However, Dr Phillips says that’s changing fast. The animal welfare specialist says his recent research, based on a poll of 680 US consumers, points to growing enthusiasm for the product.

“We’re generally finding quite good acceptance for the product. About 75% of people are willing to try in-vitro meat,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “Most would be willing to try it and half would be willing to eat it regularly, while 21% were unsure.

The future of food

“Whereas previous surveys had raised much more scepticism among consumers, we found well over half would consider replacing farm meat with in-vitro meat.”Cost, he concedes, is also an issue.

It reportedly costs Memphis Meats about US$6,000 (A$7,716) per pound to produce its lab-grown chicken while MosaMeat valued its artificial beef patty at a whopping US$330,000 (A$424,389) in 2013, but expects the price to be around US$10 (A$13) when production reaches scale using current technology.

Dr Phillips predicts prices will fall as demand rises and producers boost volumes, making the product available to a bigger market of ethically minded consumers.

“There’s significant investment going in from some of the major food producing companies like Tyson and when they start investing you think ‘this is going to happen’,” he says.

“But clearly the price has got to be no more than that of existing meat products. Our sample of people said their decision was quite price sensitive and they were not prepared to pay more than for conventional meat.”

Taste barrier

An additional hurdle is taste. The first lab-meat beef patty, unveiled in Germany in 2013, was described as “surprisingly crunchy” and “like an animal protein shake”, while Memphis Meats’ recent efforts have been greeted more positively.

Dr Candrawinata has twice sampled lab-grown meat and admits more work needs to be done on the end part of the process.

This is especially the case, he suggests, for consumers in the West who, unlike millions of people in places like China and India, already have a very meat-rich diet.

Fast facts:

Coming soon…
While not expected to put a much of a dent in demand for conventional meat and poultry, current estimates forecast that cultured meat is likely to appear in restaurants and specialty stores in three to five years, and in supermarkets in five to eight years.

“The taste needs some work and the texture is also a problem,” he says. “The lab-grown meat currently comes in chunks and mince. I’ve tried both and the mince better emulates regular mince, whereas the cubes are a bit too soft. This is something that remains a barrier.”

Even so, he predicts the lab-meat revolution is just around the corner. “If you’re asking me when it will become an accepted alternative, I’d say in the next five years.”