Is synthetic meat a friend or foe of livestock?

University of Guelph researchers looking for input from livestock farmers

Bill Gates’ latest book discussing ways to tackle climate change hit the shelves on Feb. 16. In it, he urges wealthy countries to give up beef and switch to 100 per cent synthetic alternatives - a concept that quickly got him trending on Twitter as people grappled with the idea. 

So what exactly is synthetic meat? It goes by various names like cultured or lab-grown meat but is also referred to as cellular agriculture. It’s the field of growing animal agriculture products - like meat - directly from cell cultures in a growing medium instead of using livestock. 

Primarily, this evolving field has focused on beef, pork, poultry and fish, as well as dairy and egg. Gates and others are promoting it as a way for people to be still able to enjoy these products without negative aspects of livestock farming like methane emissions. 

Why it matters: Younger consumers in particular are leading a shift towards more environmentally conscious living and eating, impacting purchasing behaviours. 

According to market research by Technavio, the cultured meat market will grow by $200 million US between 2020 and 2024, growing annually by almost 16 per cent. North America is estimated to be home to nearly half of that growth. 

Dr. Simon Somogyi is the Arrell Chair in the Business of Food and Director of the Longo’s Food Retail Laboratory at the University of Guelph’s School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management. 

Together with his research team, Caroline Reisiger, Deus Mugabe, and Sudhanshu Sudan, Somogyi is studying the impact cellular meat products would have on the meat industry. 

They want to hear from farmers, consumers, retailers and meat processors on the issue and have designed a series of surveys with help from non-profit partner Cellular Agriculture Canada. 

“To be successful, cellular agriculture should integrate, not compete, with traditional meat production,” Reisiger says. “However, there is currently little information available to guide product launch in this regard. We hope our study will help to fill this gap.”

“Cultured meat may not yet be as top of mind as plant-based proteins when it comes to meat alternatives, but that doesn’t mean the livestock industry shouldn’t be paying attention.” photo: jiraroj praditcharoenkul/iStock/Getty Images

Survey results will be used to help make recommendations for the cellular agriculture industry about how they can merge their technology with current food production and supply. The team hopes to hear from 100 dairy, livestock and poultry farmers, 100 representatives from the retail and meat processing sectors and 300 consumers Canada-wide. 

Cultured meat may not yet be as top of mind as plant-based proteins when it comes to meat alternatives, but that doesn’t mean the livestock industry shouldn’t be paying attention. That’s according to Mike McMorris, CEO of Livestock Research Innovation Corporation (LRIC), a Guelph-based organization focused on innovation in the livestock sector. 

“I think it (cellular agriculture) is an emerging competitor and livestock producers and sectors need to make sure they are addressing consumer needs and concerns to be well-positioned when the competitors emerge,” McMorris says. 

That includes doing a better job of telling the positive story of what livestock does to enhance soil as well as the human health aspects of consuming “real” animal products. And it means addressing nomenclature issues so consumers have a clear understanding of what they are buying and eating. 

For example, what happens to soil health without manure from livestock? And is milk grown from cultured cells still milk, or is it a dairy beverage the way oat, almond and soy-based drinks are? 

“The food system is pretty complex, and there is no silver bullet,” McMorris adds. “You have to think about all the implications not only for livestock but also for cellular agriculture.” 

Livestock farmers looking to participate in the survey can contact the research team at [email protected] or Caroline Reisiger directly at [email protected] The survey is open until March 15, with a final report expected before the summer. 

The project is funded by the University of Guelph, the Arrell Food Institute and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Highly Qualified Personnel program. 

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