Debrief

Cultured meat: No-kill products may be food for the future

Singapore this week approved the sale of a cultured meat product. Such alternative proteins could pave the way for more sustainable food production and better food security.

A fillet of lab-grown cultured chicken developed by Eat Just.
A fillet of lab-grown cultured chicken developed by Eat Just.PHOTO: REUTERS/EAT JUST

SINGAPORE - In a world first, Singapore on Wednesday (Dec 2) approved the sale of a cultured meat product here.

The chicken bites by Californian start-up Eat Just are made by culturing animal cells in bioreactors instead of rearing animals on farms, and are not yet available for sale and consumption anywhere else.

The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) said it was allowing the cultured chicken to be sold here after its evaluations determined it to be safe.

The company would not be drawn on a timeline on when the product will be available, but the firm's chief executive Josh Tetrick told The Straits Times on Thursday that it will be soon, and at a "higher-end" restaurant.

The aim is to make cultured meat cheaper than conventionally farmed meat, he added.

Why it matters

Alternative proteins, such as cultured meat, could pave the way for more sustainable food production and better food security.

While a report on land use by the UN's climate science body last year found that plant-based diets were still associated with a lower environmental impact compared with meat-based ones, it may not be feasible to get everyone to go vegetarian.

Culturing meat could be an alternative to rearing livestock, which according to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation make up 14.5 percent of emissions from human activity.

Culturing meat involves taking cells from an animal (often done in a harmless way, such as through a biopsy), and then growing the cells in a nutrient broth within a bioreactor.

This process has been associated with a number of environmental benefits.

One, it reduces emissions associated with rearing livestock.

There is less need to clear forests for farms or grow crops for animal feed, and reduces methane emissions from ruminants like cows, which releases a lot of methane during digestion of their food. Methane is considered a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over shorter time spans.

Two, culturing meat can be done in a smaller land area compared with the livestock supply chain.

Three, it allows meat to be produced without slaughter. This avoids the need to confine livestock to small spaces, and reduces the chance of diseases spreading between humans and animals.

On the food security front, cultured meat could also boost the resilience of import-dependent nations like Singapore, which sources more than 90 per cent of its food from overseas.

Eat Just has said its cultured chicken bites will be manufactured in Singapore, and Mr Tetrick told ST on Thursday that the firm aims to produce enough not just for the domestic market, but for the rest of Asia as well.

What lies ahead

The need to feed a growing global population, which could reach almost 10 billion by mid-century, is straining food production systems.

And the impacts of climate change - whether changing rainfall patterns or more frequent extreme weather events - could put further stress on food security.

These trends highlight the need for new ways of producing food, with a smaller carbon footprint.

Critics have said the environmental impact of culturing meat - an energy-intensive process - is not definitively better than rearing animals the traditional way.

Context is important. In Singapore, for instance, most energy is generated by natural gas - a cleaner fossil fuel than coal or oil. Advancements made in renewable energy systems, and scaling up production of cultured meat, could boost efficiency and lower the carbon footprint of cultured meat.

As with many new innovations, more studies are needed to assess the different impacts of cultured meat products.

The SFA has done so on the food safety front. But even as research on environmental impact continues, another hurdle remains: Consumer receptivity to eating meat made a different way.

The impact of climate change can already be felt. Consumers can help, by keeping an open mind.