By Heather Seely
If you haven’t heard of the burger that cost $325,000, perhaps you’ve been living under a hamburger bun. Released more than six years ago, this burger was unlike all the rest (yet shockingly similar at the same time). Created from stem cells and cultivated in a lab in the Netherlands, this was the world’s first lab-grown burger—and just the beginning of where technology would take food.
Cultured meat has taken the world by storm. Scientists around the world have been working endlessly to create food in a laboratory. Some startups have even raised more than $17 million for research and production. Big names are involved in the world of future meat—Richard Branson and Bill Gates are some of the biggest investors. Now, more than 20 companies are reportedly involved in the race to get a lab-grown burger on the market—without it costing an arm and a leg.
Many see cultured protein as a way to completely do away with conventionally farmed meat. With the increased understanding of animal agriculture’s role in climate change, scientists and environmentalists alike are looking into the white walls of a lab for a solution. Beef and other ruminant animals produce much higher greenhouse emissions when compared to other proteins. Cultured meat seems like a win-win—it results in lower emissions, doesn’t require antibiotics, and takes up much less land and water. Beef isn’t the only priority for cultured meat ventures though—companies are working on using stem cells to grow chicken, pork, turkey, and tuna. Some companies even have their sights set on lab-grown foie gras and mouse meat for pet food.
More than meat
While it’s cultured meat that’s made headlines over the past few years, we’ll probably see the term “lab-grown” apply to more foods in 2020. Solar Foods has stepped out as one company to watch for this year.
The Finland-based startup boasts their ability to make “food out of thin air.”
Solar Foods’ new protein, Solein, could be just what environmentalists have been waiting for. It’s made with living microbes that have been grown in a fermenter in a process very similar to brewing beer. The microbes are fed with hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen—the “thin air” required to make food.
Huge vats store this fermentation process. A liquid is removed upon completion and dried to produce the final product. The end result is a yellow powder, very similar to flour and with multiple food uses. Mixed with oat milk and fried on a pan, you have pancakes. Used in food processing, it could be added as a protein additive in foods like noodles and breads. It could be an ingredient in plant-based meat alternatives. It could even work in foods as a binder, minimizing the need for environmentally destructive palm oil.
The production of Solein is still in the early stages. What’s been released over the past couple of months is the product of a pilot trial. From here, Solar Foods has plans to build a demonstrator plant by 2022. After that, regulatory approval from food authorities will have to be granted. By 2025, there are hopes to have Solein produced in a full-scale factory and then launched in limited amounts to the market.
The opportunities with products like Solein are seemingly endless and this technology is considered to be a game-changer—something that has the potential to save the planet.
Food production without agriculture
With the global population expected to rise to 9.7 billion by 2050, changes to our food system are essential. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggests that meeting demand will require a 50% increase in food production by that year. Arguments about plant-based versus meat-based diets are irrelevant—the food of the future could come from neither plants nor animals. Solar Foods’ protein is a demonstration of food produced by unicellular life, and without many of the burdens of agriculture.
The production of Solein requires minimal land and water compared to traditional agriculture. To produce 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of animal protein (beef) requires more than 15,000 liters (3,300 gallons). With Solein? Those numbers are much lower, just 10 liters (2.6 gallons) of water are required. Solein is committed to 100% renewable energy use, even with plans to scale up. With plans to use solar power, deserts are considered ideal places for future production plants—putting food production in places that have never really seen it before.
Even with all the benefits, the introduction of lab-grown products to our food system may also have negative consequences. There could be large-scale livelihood losses for those currently involved in farming. With this, could come a loss of cultural identity or even total shifts in farming communities. Power imbalances could present another issue. When it comes to technologies like these, special consideration has to be made in order to prevent a reproduction of social and economic inequalities. What are the possible outcomes of one company eventually being responsible for most of the world’s protein production?
Just like with “fake meat,” the jury’s still out about how consumers will respond to lab-grown foods as availability increases. Recent food trends indicate a shift to more natural, holistic foods. The demand for organic food is increasing faster than the supply. Would lab-grown food further distance humans from nature? Can we risk being more disconnected from the natural world when catastrophes like the Australian bushfires remind us how important this planet is? Or, do lab-grown foods provide a much-needed way for us to prevent climate disasters?
Although there are concerns surrounding lab-grown food, it looks like this technology is here—and here to stay. What are your thoughts? Craving a lab-grown pancake now?
Heather Seely is a freelancer with degrees in human nutrition and food sustainability. Her hands are either on the keyboard or in the dirt—she’s an aspiring farmer and shares her food and sustainability thoughts at hungryhungryheather.co.
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Feature image via Shutterstock.