Meat grown from cells could make cruelty-free meat from exotic animals real
If you follow the food tech space, cell-grown beef, chicken, and fish—that is, real meat from animal cells rather than slaughtered animals—are pretty much obsolete. . Berkeley-based Upside Foods just raised a whopping $400 million in funding as the company prepares to bring its first consumer product to market: cell-grown chicken, made in partnership with chef Dominique Crenn. Elsewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area, SCiFi Foods has received $22 million from investors as the company develops a scalable process for its flagship product, which will be plant-based and cell-cultured hybrid beef. In Israel, food technology company SuperMeat recently received a grant to develop an open-source platform to help the entire cell-cultured meat industry grow while reducing costs.
Suffice it to say, there are plenty of companies working to produce cruelty-free but biologically identical chicken, pork, beef, and seafood products for popular consumption, and money is being invested in them. What you might not know is that there are also a handful of companies that use cell culture strategies to make commercially available, ethical forms of meat. . . less familiar, to say the least.
London-based Primeval Foods focuses exclusively on growing exotic meats, such as lions, tigers and zebras. Similarly, the Australian company Vow Foods seeks to solve the problems of our modern food systems by exploring the possibilities of cell cultured zebra or elephant meat. In Europe, food technology company Paleo has a patent pending for cultured strains of the heme protein (which is said to be what gives meat its meaty taste) that are bioidentical to those of several farm animals. common, and one, well, not so common: the long-extinct woolly mammoth.
From a culinary perspective, I can see why chefs, foodies and adventurous eaters would be excited about the prospect: we could theoretically try meats that have historically been banned due to laws, customs or, in the case of woolly mammoth—extinction. Even better, it wouldn’t require the slaughter of any animals, let alone those that are protected from hunting or those that many of us would just feel weird eating. Many people might be curious to try, say, Swiss dog jerky if they could do so without the ethical discomfort of killing man’s best friend.
Meat from cell cultures is certainly a solution to the deleterious effects of livestock farming on the environment and animal well-being that does not require a major upheaval in the human diet. Opponents constantly point the finger at declining sales of plant-based meat products, and some people are so opposed to the prospect of giving up their carnivorous habits that they’d rather “die young” than go vegetarian. Meat from cell cultures could, in theory, solve all these problems: reduce animal husbandry and animal suffering, and fight world hunger, without anyone having to give up their favorite foods.
Cell-grown beef, chicken, pork and fish are all poised to hopefully solve the problems caused by their respective industries. But given that there still isn’t a comparably sized industry behind the sale of, say, lion meat, it’s hard to argue that exotic meat farming exactly solves today’s societal problems. . But could this cause new ones?
At best, developing cell culture processes for exotic meat is a redundant undertaking. It seems pointless, if not pointless, to invest money in developing no-slaughter panther meat when we don’t even have commercially viable systems yet to make and sell cell-grown chicken or beef. When ecosystems are under immediate threat due to our eating habits, using the cutting edge of food science to develop a novelty product for fancy restaurants seems like a poor use of resources.
Plus, bringing exotic animals into conversations about cell-cultured meat is a questionable public relations move. It’s true that tiger and woolly mammoth meat is making headlines, and that attention could attract funding to the cell-cultured meat industry as a whole. But for many consumers, the idea of “lab-grown” meat is still anything but appetizing. Many people are still skeptical of the concept itself and aren’t ready to see what they consider a science experiment appear on their plates.
There are arguments in favor of the development of these exotic meats. Undoubtedly, companies in this space would help bring in additional investment, and perhaps that would advance the broader cellular agriculture technology to be developed. For example, certain types of cells, such as those belonging to exotic species, could theoretically be easier to cultivate than the more traditional ones. Then there’s the fact that mimicking existing products is inherently difficult, so it might be more strategic to instead create new tastes where there is no existing taste competition. But I don’t think those pros outweigh the cons, at least not at this early stage of development.
It’s perhaps cynical, but I think valid, to ask whether giving people a taste of new blood (literally!) would lead to an increase in animal cruelty practices. Suppose lion meat becomes an exclusive, niche luxury product. Those outside of the super-elite are likely to become curious about what the hype is all about. Maybe diners really like it, and lion meat’s popularity is spreading like wildfire. Do we really believe that this would not encourage poaching activities, or even possibly the commercial breeding and killing of lions?
At best, science and innovation can bring about radical change for the good of society. Meat grown from cells, I believe, could be an incredible opportunity to reduce the amount of human-induced suffering in the world, and a practical way to expand the circle of our compassion. But by introducing even more animal species as food, rather than as worthy cohabitants of planet Earth, we are not developing our compassion. We reduce it.