The so-called ‘fake meat’ would bring enormous advantages from the point of view of eco-sustainability, and in the future, it could cost less than classic meat. Still, some remain sceptical: we talk about it with Pietro Veragouth, director of the Swiss Institute for Disruption Innovation.
You say ‘synthetic meat’, and they usually look at you sideways. Perhaps it is the word ‘synthetic’ that is the real problem. It is a term that suggests science, innovation and progress, but which inevitably refers to something fake and unnatural. Yet, according to experts, the ‘classic’ meat industry would be the real enemy of nature, as intensive animal farming is considered one of the sectors that produce the most CO2 emissions and also uses large amounts of resources. T
hus, with the problem of climate change becoming more and more pressing, for about ten years in the laboratories, they have begun to work on in-vitro meat, a product that is decidedly less harmful to the environment but which, as mentioned, often attracts great scepticism.
If important awareness campaigns have been launched on the issue of global warming, welcomed especially by the new generations, the issue of synthetic meat – however closely linked to the climate issue – remained somewhat in the shadows, at least until a few months ago.
Bill Gates, quoted by the media worldwide, declared that western countries should eat only the so-called ‘fake meat’. To tell the truth, bioengineering has for some time been offering this alternative product as an eco-sustainable solution. Ticino, an innovative start-up, has focused on the research and development of synthetic meat. With Pietro Veragouth, director of the Swiss Institute for Disruption Innovation, we talked about the advantages and problems related to ‘fake meat’, also trying to understand if the time has come to invest in this type of activity and what the prospects are.
At what point is the research in the development of synthetic meat?
“Synthetic meat has been in work for about ten years, but the opening of the market is recent, prompted by the massive demand of consumers who are more attentive to what they put on their plate and more sensitive to environmental issues. The initial scepticism, largely due to prejudice and disinformation, has given way to curiosity and the will to try alternatives accepted, even promoted, by the scientific community and produced with respect for the planet. Of course, the difficulties are not lacking, especially from the point of view of industrial scalability and final cost. This is why some researchers tend to see in-vitro meat, as the daughter of so-called cellular agriculture, as something that follows a linear development.
In this logic, however, mass-produce meat would still take many years, perhaps decades. Others, including myself, believe that evolution in this field is not linear but exponential and in continuous acceleration. Indeed, there is an acceleration due to disruptive innovations and the introduction of ideas and technologies capable of revolutionizing processes.”
Before delving into the subject, can you explain how it is technically achieved?
I can simplify in 5 steps (see infographics below) one of the most common techniques:
1) biopsy was taken from the animal
2) extraction and small-scale culture (first expansion) of muscle stem cells
3) expansion in a bioreactor to obtain billions of cells
4) differentiation of muscle stem cells into muscle tissue
5) assembly of synthetic meat with adipocytes (produced with the same strategy) and connective tissue cells (fibroblasts)
If we switched to the regular consumption of synthetic meat, what advantages would we have from the point of view of eco-sustainability? How good would it be for the environment?
The advantages are innumerable. I speak deliberately in the present and not in the conditional because the publications that see the world’s scientific communities in the agreement are online, available to everyone. To name a few of a more popular nature: How Eating Less Meat Could Help Protect the Planet From Climate Change (Time. Retrieved 2019), Meat: the Future series Alternative Proteins (World Economic Forum, 2019), From intensive farming to cellular agriculture (Ethics and Bioethics documents, 2019).
In the introduction of the latter, we already find the synthesis of the immediate advantages: the intensive breeding of animals is an important cause of the emission of greenhouse gases, of the exploitation of the soil and the high consumption of water, as well as of other criticalities related to the disposal of excess sewage (see FAO report).
Furthermore, concerns are high on the part of the United Nations about the traditional production of meat for the world population, which is exponentially growing.
If not to further irreversible damage to the environment. The development of synthetic meat represents an eco-sustainable alternative.
Tell us about it from an ethical point of view: how are animals involved in making the product?
The term ‘ethical’ embraces various contexts. How animals for slaughter are raised in most intensive farms, for example, has nothing ethical about it. It is not just a personal opinion; it is the objective confirmation of a global situation that, over time, has caused heated clashes between farmers, industry and consumers.
Unfortunately, the pressing on the part of farmers, understandable from an economic point of view because the meat supply chain employs many people, conditions the decisions of the European Union in total stalemate in the implementation of adequate rules. But we get stuck in really too complicated issues, on which it is good, however, to reflect. Another complex front is the approach to the world of stem cells. We think about the above facts that the multiplication technique of cells extracted from a single animal would allow the multiplication in large quantities of the ‘parts of meat’ to be put on the market.
Bill Gates’ statement that richer countries should start consuming synthetic meat regularly to pollute less has not gone unnoticed. Do you agree?
Asked this way, the answer can only be affirmative. However, we know well that, behind the claims of such influential people, in addition to philanthropy and biophilia, there is also an infallible flair for business. It is no coincidence that Bill Gates is among the leading financiers of Beyond Meat (a US company based in Los Angeles, founded in 2009, born to create vegetable meat substitutes): listed on Nasdaq in 2019, after a few months, the shares have exploded by 859%. Today it is worth 12 billion dollars and is expected to double by 2025. In the United States, during the stalemate caused by the pandemic, one of the sectors to record a 264% increase in sales was precisely that of ‘fake meat’, as the Americans call it.
Many people are still sceptical on the subject, in your opinion for what reasons?
As I mentioned earlier, I believe that the reasons are above all cultural and linked to disinformation, but the new generations, as evidenced by the consensus that synthetic meat is enjoying overseas, are more attentive to health and better informed. Even the problem of taste, smell, and texture is about to be overcome by bioengineering.
Speaking of flavour: is it possible to replicate that of the meat of different animals? Are there big differences from a sensory point of view?
Studies show positive results: the flavour of the meat depends but is not limited to the animal species providing the initial tissue biopsy. Remember that synthetic meat is composed of three cells: myocytes (muscle cells), adipocytes and fibroblasts. Adipocytes are different in each species and form about 10% of the final mass. They are cells loaded with lipids, which is important for flavour.
What are the problems related to synthetic meat?
As already mentioned, large-scale production, regulation and ethical issues. About safety for consumers’ health, numerous scientific publications reassure this (see for example here). We are thinking only of the use of antibiotics, essential for the economic sustainability of intensive farming. Or the waste produced by intensive farming is polluted by antibiotics and bacteria resistant to them, making reuse as agricultural fertilizers risky. And, again, the very scale of the farms facilitates the contagion between animals and humans, as happened in the past for avian flu.
The production of synthetic meat, grown in controlled environments, significantly reduces the risk of diseases of animal origin and antibiotics. Theoretically, it is also possible to produce, assemble, test and package food grown in-vitro in a single place, avoiding external contamination.
How much does synthetic meat cost today? In the future, when production is well underway, will it cost less than the classic one, which for many is not an everyday meal?
Yes, I have no doubts. The cost is determined by several factors, including scalability in production and market demand. As said before, I am convinced that the evolution in this field is truly exponential. It is up to entrepreneurs and their ability to find new solutions, optimize production on the one hand, and the other hand to help spread the knowledge of the value behind the choice of this new product. Among the intrinsic values just mentioned, there is also the possibility of feeding the world population with a diet rich in “alternative proteins”, destined to reach high numbers in 2050.
In our latitudes, new foods are taking hold, such as those based on insects: what diet do you see in our future?
Well, let’s say that the idea of making me a skewer of grasshoppers or crickets does not tickle my palate; on the other hand, I love snails, which for other cultures are the most repulsive. In any case, I would have no problem eating meatballs or pasta made with insect flours. As for proteins, insects are a real concentrate added to good fats, calcium, iron, and zinc.
In our future, I see a balanced diet based on products that respect animals, the environment, and individuals’ health, not forgetting that even an insect, however insignificant it may be, suffers in the same way that other animals suffer, including man.