If you follow the food-tech space, cell-grown beef, chicken, and fish — that is, real meat grown from animal cells rather than slaughtered animals — are now practically old-fashioned. Berkeley-based Upside Foods has just raised a whopping $400 million in funding as the company prepares to bring its first consumer product to market: cell-grown chicken, created in collaboration with executive chef Dominique Crenn. Elsewhere in the San Francisco Bay area, SCiFi Foods raised $22 million from investors as the company develops a scalable process for its flagship product, which will be hybrid, plant-based and cell-grown beef. In Israel, food technology company SuperMeat recently received a grant to develop an open-source platform intended to help grow the entire cell-grown meat industry while keeping costs down.
Suffice it to say, there are many companies working – and investing money in – to create cruelty-free but biologically identical chicken, pork, beef and seafood products for popular consumption. What you may not know is that there are also a handful of companies that use cell culture strategies to make ethical and commercially available forms of meat. . . lesser known, to say the least.
London-based company Primeval Foods focuses solely on the cultivation of exotic meats, such as lions, tigers and zebras. Similarly, Australian company Vow Foods is trying to tackle the problems of our modern food systems by exploring the possibilities of cell-grown zebra or elephant meat. In Europe, food tech company Paleo has filed a patent for cultivated strains of the protein heme (which is said to give meat a meaty taste) that are bioidentical to those of several common livestock, and one, well, not so common: the long-extinct woolly mammoth.
From a culinary standpoint, I can see why chefs, foodies and adventurous eaters would be excited about this prospect: We could, in theory, try meats that were banned in the past due to laws, customs, or — in the case of the woolly mammoth — extinction. Best of all, there are no animals to be slaughtered, let alone animals that are protected from hunting or many of us would just feel weird about food. Many people may be curious to try, say, Swiss dog jerky if they could do it without the ethical inconvenience of killing man’s best friend.
Cell-grown meat is certainly a solution to the harmful environmental and animal welfare effects of livestock farming that does not require a major revolution in the way humanity eats. Opponents constantly point to declining sales of plant-based meat products, and some people are so opposed to the prospect of giving up their carnivorous ways that they would rather “die young” than go vegetarian. Cell-grown meat could theoretically solve all of these problems: reduce livestock and animal suffering, and tackle global hunger, without anyone having to actually give up their favorite foods.
Cell-cultured beef, chicken, pork and fish are all set to hopefully solve the problems caused by their respective industries. But since there is still no comparable industry behind the sale of, for example, lion meat, it is difficult to argue that exotic meat farming exactly solves the current social problems. But can it cause new?
At best, developing cell culture processes for exotic meat is a redundant undertaking. It seems unnecessary, perhaps even wasteful, to invest in the development of slaughter-free panther meat when we do not yet have commercially viable systems for making and selling cell-grown chicken or beef. When ecosystems are immediately threatened by our diets, it feels like a misuse of resources to use advanced food science to develop a new product for upscale restaurants.
In addition, bringing exotic animals into conversations about cell-grown meat is a questionable public relations move. It’s true that tiger and woolly mammoth meat has made headlines, and could focus on funding for the cell-cultivated meat industry in general. 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 are not ready for what they see as a science experiment to appear on their plates.
There are arguments to develop this exotic meat. Undoubtedly, companies in this space would help bring in additional investment, and perhaps that would help develop the broader technology for cellular farming. For example, certain cell types, such as those belonging to exotic species, would theoretically be easier to culture than more traditional ones. Then there’s the fact that imitating existing products is inherently difficult, so it may be more strategic to instead create entirely new flavors where there is no existing taste competition. But I don’t think these advantages outweigh the disadvantages, at least not at this early stage of development.
It may be cynical, but I think it’s fair to wonder if giving people the taste of new blood (literally!) would lead to more animal cruelty practices. Suppose lion meat becomes a niche, exclusive luxury product. Those outside the super elite are likely to get curious about what the hype is all about. Maybe diners really like it, and the popularity of lion meat is spreading like wildfire. Do we really believe that this would not encourage poaching, or perhaps even commercial farming and lion slaughter?
At its best, science and innovation can make profound changes for the betterment of society. Cell-grown meat could be, I think, an incredible opportunity to reduce the amount of man-made suffering in the world, and a practical way to expand the circle of our compassion. But introducing even more animal species as food, rather than worthy fellow inhabitants of planet Earth, does not increase our compassion. We narrow it down.