The meat and livestock industry is a major polluter, but is growing meat in a lab really the answer? We investigate
Illtud Dunsford, co-founder and CEO of Cellular Agriculture, which is spearheading the technology for lab grown meat, is having a pickle with some baking. When I speak to him from his home in Wales over Skype, he’s mid-way through attempt number two at some pizza dough for his young child’s birthday. The portable wood fire oven is all ready to go, but the dough, it’s just not working out.
“I knew last night when I was making it that it wasn't right but I thought, ‘I'll let it prove overnight, fridge it and hope it will be fine for tonight,” he tells me. “But … No, definitely not.”
It’s a good job, then, that pizza-making is not the line of business Dunsford is concerned with. Cellular Agriculture, the company he started with Dr. Marianne Ellis, the Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Bath, is at the forefront of developing technology for lab grown meat. They don’t produce the food themselves, though. That’s not their bag. Rather, they’re in the process of creating what—they hope—will be on the mass production side of things. When McDonald’s and Burger King decide to stop the slaughter, Cel Ag LTD will be there, ready and waiting. Though it may take time, Illtud is confident that what we’ve seen so far is only the beginning.
“It always goes to the high value premium or super niche market first,” he says, “before it ever gets to the point of competing. We saw that with things like the Beyond [Burger] and the Impossible [Burger]… Even last night, I hadn't realised, but my closest rural Tescos here in west Wales now stocks the Beyond stuff. It's amazing to see the journey that products like that have now made, and it’s happening very quickly.”
Lab grown, or ‘cultured’ meat, is meat grown from cells taken from a live animal via a small biopsy. Muscle tissue is typically what’s grown, using stem cells. They’re then placed in a controlled habitat similar to an animal so that the cells grow and grow, billions at a time. Eventually, something called ‘myotubes’ are formed. These are rudimentary muscle strands. Those are then placed in a gel that is 99 percent water, according to Mosa Meat, a cultured meat production company. This process, they say, “can produce 800 million strands of muscle tissue (enough to make 80,000 quarter pounders)” Cellular Agriculture are developing the technology to fast track and simplify this process, and make it attainable for business use, home use and beyond.
Illtud’s family have been in farming for over 300 years, predominantly dairy. After a stint in various industries, including photography and location scouting for feature films, he returned to an agriculture-adjacent business, starting Charcutier Ltd.
It was through this company, and a Nuffield Farming Scholarship in 2015, that got Illtud his interest in cultured meat.
“I'd seen this conference at a university on cultured meat. It was hosted by Professor Mark Post who produced the first cell-cultured burger in 2013. And I thought to myself, well, this should be interesting, and off I went.”
Illtud discovered a prediction of the future made by Winston Churchill back in 1931: “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
It got him thinking: “If we can do this, then all the work that I'm currently doing in the meat industry in terms of adding value to waste is... completely replaced with this new technology.”
Diving head first into this new world, Illtud began to make contacts in the fields of biology and chemistry, and discovered that the lab grown meat, to the layman perhaps a step too far into the future, was indiscernible from its ‘natural’ counterpart.
“I remember dinner one night, I was sat next to a biologist, who ran an independent Food Lab who had been an independent verifier for the horsemeat scandal across Europe. He had done some extensive testing on products that Mark [Post] produced in the lab, and had actually gone to a supermarket and taken a piece of organic beef and made a comparison. He couldn't tell which one was which from a chemical analysis perspective.”
With a cow, you can't capture the burp
When he met Dr. Ellis in 2015, she’d already put in thousands of hours of research into cultured meat, and began thinking of designs for facilities that could produce it regularly, and to scale. The blending of their respective backgrounds in biochemistry and agriculture has fostered a relationship of powerful synergy.
“We were most definitely the first company that actually fitted into kind of more of a second generation model where we weren't focusing on a full-stack approach of trying to fix every single technological bottleneck along the value chain. We decided to concentrate purely on the hardware element, so the technology to grow the cells.”
Lab-grown meat isn’t without its issue, however. A 2019 study argued that the CO2 produced by laboratories, which stays in the atmosphere for more than a century, is worse than the methane levels currently being produced by cattle. Lab-grown meat isn’t necessarily automatically better for the environment than beef, if the lab is not using green energy sources. For Illtud, though, sustainability is not only a primary concern but also worked into the ecosystem of the designs themselves.
“This is kind of key to where we sit within this whole process. We're producing the technology, which is what the bit that actually is very energy heavy. For us to produce an efficient system, it's about recycling, so any heat that's produced from the energy used, can be then reused within the system to reduce those energy costs.”
“The big difference for us is that with a cow, you can't capture the burp. With us, because it's a technological system, the emissions that are produced or any of the waste that’s produced, you can capture those and turn them into revenue streams as opposed to something that’s to the detriment of the environment.”
It’s important to instil with people the provenance of the things they buy
The livestock and meat industry is responsible for a whopping 14.5% of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. Even if businesses and people transfer to clean and renewable sources of energy, this elephant (or cow) in the room remains. If what Illtud says is true, and the emissions from the lab grown, or cultured, meat can be reused, the meat industry as we know it could be obsolete.
The technology is still a long way off, and a battle of Mortal Kombat is sure to ensue between the burgeoning cultured meat business and Big Agriculture. A formative experience for Illtud was a trip to the Amazon, witnessing the unsustainable devastation that the palm oil and dairy industries are inflicting on the region.
“I just I broke down with the final dinner,” he says. “It's such a testing experience. One or two of the old farmers [on the trip] just didn't see what the problem was. One of them actually said during the tour that ‘There was some good money to be made in logging here’, and I was just thinking, ‘Oh my god.’”
As someone who comes from generations of farmers, it’s important to instil with people the provenance of the things they buy. Aside from its potential to help save the planet, it’s a mass education, an understanding, a realisation, that could be the prize of this venture.
“It also made me realise how devoid we are from our food culture, even when we're part of the British agricultural industry. We could be running a family farm for years, just buying local feed from a feed merchant, and we have absolutely no idea what impact that’s having.”