Synthetic meat is cultivated using animal stem cells, which are multiplied through bioreactors – this process can last between two and four weeks.
On the last 16th of November, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the American governmental institution responsible for regulating food and pharmaceutical products, declared that the synthetic chicken created by the start-up Upside Foods is «safe for human consumption». This is the first step towards commercialising synthetic, lab-grown meat, produced without slaughtering living animals. Now, the US is two regulatory procedures away from having cultured meat distributed to the public: Upside Foods’ factories need to pass the inspection of the Department of Agriculture and its products need to receive the label certifying the inspection.
How is lab-grown meat created? Synthetic meat is cultivated using animal stem cells, which are multiplied through bioreactors – this process can last between two and four weeks. In order to understand the innovative value of this creation, it is enough to consider that through the cells of one single chicken, it is possible to cultivate the same amount of meat that normally would require the slaughter of thousands and thousands of specimens.
Generally speaking, the need of diminishing meat consumption stems from both an ethical commitment towards other living beings’ sufferings and environmental issues. By now, it is well known that the intensive consumption of animal products strongly clashes with the current climate crisis; the livestock-related industrial supply chain is one of the most impactful sectors concerning climate-changing gas emissions, as it is responsible for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions.
There are countless controversies regarding this matter: both from an environmental side, with issues such as deforestation, emissions, as well as soil and water consumption, to name a few, and from a human-health side due to the growing risk of developing resistance to antibiotics.
Nowadays there are about a hundred start-ups active in this field: Singapore is the only one allowing the sale of in vitro meat, whereas, in Tel Aviv, the food technology company Supermeat inaugurated a “test kitchen” where it is possible to taste their own synthetic chicken. Chicken cells inside fermenters can multiply themselves endlessly, as the fermenter is fuelled by a mixture of water, carbohydrates, proteins, amino acids, vitamins and sugars. However, it requires rather complex and expensive production processes: firstly, through a simple biopsy, stem cells are isolated from either a living animal or fresh meat; afterwards, the different types of cells are further isolated and inserted inside the bioreactor where they can grow and duplicate. The basis of this process is the cell cultivation technology developed by the pharmaceutical industry to create, for example, antibodies and vaccines.
Apart from being quite expensive, this procedure also requires a great deal of energy to maintain a constant temperature inside the bioreactor that would allow the stem cells to proliferate.
The struggle for energy and environmental sustainability, along with the discussion around safety, represent the main themes brought as arguments against the new technologies related to the creation of in vitro meat. One of the greatest issues with environmental consequences regarding intensive livestock breeding is the emission of greenhouse gas; however, machinery used to create in vitro meat is also responsible for this phenomenon. A study conducted by Oxford University in 2019 estimated that this new process would be responsible for the production of such an enormous quantity of greenhouse gas that it might have a greater impact on the environment than livestock meat.
What about Italy? The Belpaese didn’t give a warm welcome to the concept of synthetic meat, gathering several “no”s from the government, and Coldiretti. Among other opposers, there’s also the Slow Food movement, an international non-profit organisation aiming at “giving back food its value” through a harmonious system that engages producers, the environment and ecosystems. The reasons behind this aversion do not only lay on the energetic expenses and environmental sustainability, but also on the fear that this new technology may serve as, among other things, a means to food homologations, which would lead to erasing the connection between food and the tradition and culture of the areas where it comes from. According to Slow Food, the same goals at which we aim through lab-grown meat should be pursued by giving support to small local farmers rather than to intensive livestock breeding and by remodelling the carnivore diet in a way that favours plant-based proteins rather than animal ones.