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Cultivated Meat for a Better Tomorrow

Excessive protein consumption has been linked to adverse outcomes for our health and the health of our planet. However, fully giving up meat is unlikely to work, as we have deep emotional and cultural ties to meat eating, and we like it. Alternative protein companies might provide us with the solution: meat produced in an ethical way that does not harm the planet.

In the first article of our protein series, we discussed the cultural hype around high protein diets, where it stems from and the problems relating to sustainability and health. With this in mind, it seems essential to consider alternative protein sources.

The Future of Protein

This article is the second of three in this series. Follow along as we dive deeper into the challenges and opportunities surrounding this key nutrient. Part one you find here: What's the deal with protein?

Alternative Protein Technologies - Swiss start-ups are playing a leading role

Human ingenuity to the rescue, we are currently seeing a proliferation of alternative protein start-ups in Switzerland. Specifically for meat, these are generally categorised into 3 different types: plant-based mock meats, alternative protein sources (such as insects), or cultivated meat, where real meat is produced in the lab from a biopsy taken from a live animal. From growing health and sustainability concerns, as well as the concern for the well-being of animals, alternative protein products bring hope that we could live an ethical and healthy life whilst still enjoying our cultural dishes and favourite comfort foods. 

Aiming for quality, heritage, cultured meat on the market

To explore this further we visited MIRAI Foods, based just outside of Zürich, a company which is leading the Swiss market in the development of cultivated meat. Alexandre Morel, Head of Bioprocess and Technology Development at MIRAI, explains below the details of cultivated meat production and its potential place in our plate (klick to expand).

Interview with Alexandre Morel, Head of Bioprocess and Technology Development at MIRAI Foods

Why do you do what you do?

Firstly, for the animals. Our enemy is intensive farming, not small scale farmers that have a lot of space for their animals. In factory farming, the wellbeing of animals is not at all taken into account, and diseases are easily transmitted, because there is very little space. So animals are given a lot of antibiotics. Actually, 70% of antibiotics that are made in the world are given to animals, not to humans.

Secondly for nature. That's why we are first concentrating on beef. Later we plan to expand to other types of meat, but beef currently has, by far, the biggest impact on the planet. Cows produce a lot of methane, which is one hundred times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas (GHG). For 1kg of meat, chicken meat is emitting 10x less GHGs than beef. Currently, 80% of agricultural land is used in the meat industry [either directly for animal farming or to produce feed]. These are the problems we are trying to address.

Who is your target audience?

The people who switch to plant based meats are the people who already know there is a problem, and who are willing to change. But the goal for us is to change the people who love meat, the ones who are not willing to make the switch to plant based alternative proteins. At MIRAI foods we want to target meat lovers. For that, we need to make a really high quality product, to make sure that we re-create the same muscular structure and fat composition. Since we are developing a completely new way of making meat, we can also make it the best possible. We are aiming to make very marbled high quality steaks - we can do it, so why not? We can even make meat that is more healthy than traditional meat, to encourage people to make the switch to our meat. We are looking to optimise the fat in our meat so it is healthier, less saturated fats and more polyunsaturated fat content. We also don’t use antibiotics. Our meat will be as good, but also healthier.

What’s special about Mirai’s process for cultivated meat production?

We use the most natural methods possible - there is no genetic modification of the cells we use to grow our steaks in the lab. We take the cells as we find them in the cow and use them. Then, we need to proliferate these pre-muscle and pre-fat cells, so we have enough. Once we have enough, then we reconstruct the tissue where they come from: the pre-muscle cells become muscle cells by putting them in the right conditions, same for the fat. Finally, we combine the fat and muscle tissues together. There are many ways to make cultivated meat, but we use this one.

We also need a bioreactor to start making the structure of the meat, the muscle cells. But when we started, there was no bioreactor that could do that, so it required a lot of innovation from our side. Especially at such high quantities, it’s very specific to the cultivated meat field.

The conditions have to be precisely monitored, since these cells are coming straight from the cow so they need to be treated very well. We have optimised the system so that we can get 50 doublings (a mother cell splits into 2 daughter cells, this process can repeat 50 times within the lineage of the original mother cell before it has to stop), which is already pushing the limits of what we thought was possible with primary cells. But it’s an exponential increase, so from 1 biopsy with 50 doublings, we can make 2’000 tons of meat. This is one of our biggest achievements, we showed that it’s not needed to genetically modify cells.

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What might that look like in the future?

We envision ourselves to be like breweries: not one central production centre, but more spread out and closely collaborating with farmers. With one cow, you can take one biopsy every 2 months. Like this, from one living cow, you could produce the meat equivalent of 10’000 cattle. We are not here to own the agriculture business, but to provide an alternative, and to work with the farmers, who know the cows the best. We hope to give farmers new opportunities. The cows would live longer than cows anywhere on earth, as they wouldn’t have to be slaughtered, and we would need much less of them.

When is your product likely to come to market?

We aim to have it available for consumption in 2025-2026.

Proteinaholics - why we are not giving up meat

Food is not just about money, sustainability and health - arguably even more salient components are culture and pleasure. Food is what communities gather around, it is how we show hospitality, love and how we share each other’s culture. Pleasure is just as important, eating food we like activates a whole host of neural pathways that make us feel good, evidenced by phrases like “comfort food” pleasure1. This association we all have between food, pleasure, home, family, and comfort date back to early childhood2. A lot of these memories may be linked to meat-based dishes. No wonder there is widespread resistance to giving up meat entirely. Another societal factor that may halt the switch to a more plant-based lifestyle is, interestingly, the gender we identify with. It would seem that men in general tend to be more attached to meat than women, and a whopping 76% of vegans are women. This may be because of our socialisation: Studies show that we associate eating meat with manliness, while eating vegetables is considered a more feminine diet choice3. These deep-seated cultural and emotional reasons for meat consumption should not be underestimated or overlooked. If we promote a dietary switch while shunning these very important components, we are doomed to fail.

Food is what communities gather around, it is how we show hospitality, love and how we share each other’s culture.

“Sustainability also has to be sustainable for us,” Laura Sommer, an expert in food systems, says. It is not far-fetched to imagine that, if you are not able to enjoy comfort recipes and family classics, while also indulging cravings, you are more likely to switch back to meat. In fact, various studies report that between 30% and 80% of vegans and vegetarians eventually reintroduce meat into their diets4–7.

This is where new sources of protein come in. Aleksandra Treichel, ethical vegan for several years, uses plant-based meat in her meals: “I really enjoy trying new things, plant-based meats can be an inspiration, and sometimes a lazy food choice after a long day. It also makes it easier to convince people that I am serving a full meal when I am cooking for non-vegan friends.” Plant-based meats, alternative protein sources and cultivated meat may allow us to have the best of all worlds: sustainable protein sources, ethical treatment of farm animals, health, and our cultural classics.

Plant-based meats, alternative protein sources and cultivated meat may allow us to have the best of all worlds: sustainable protein sources, ethical treatment of farm animals, health, and our cultural classics.

However, plant-based meats alone may not be cutting it, Aleksandra notes that: “I’m struggling to know if serving these products is actually working, I think these products still belong to the vegan world, to the people who already do not eat meat. The argument I often hear from non-vegan friends is the high price, but I'm not sure if I believe that. I am afraid that it is just yet another argument where we do not feel empowered to look at our personal choices, acknowledge responsibilities and want to keep the old, comfortable habits safely alive.” Cultivated meat may offer a solution, as it promises to produce real meat, without the ethical or sustainability issues that traditionally produced meat has.

Cultivated Meat for a Better Tomorrow

The CEO of BlueHorizon, Björn Witte, an investment firm with the mission to accelerate the transition to sustainable food systems, does not think fully cultivated meat will hit the market in the next 8 years. Before then, we can expect to see the advent of hybrid meat products8, which are a blend of plant-based and lab-grown animal ingredients. If you’re in a hurry to try, head to Singapore, where you can already taste hybrid chicken nuggets from Good Meat, that are made up of 60-75% cultivated meat, and the remainder are plant-based ingredients9,10.

One of the main flavour issues of plant-based meats is due to the fat component: Current technology cannot quite replicate the indulgent taste of animal fat. Some innovators are tackling this problem by combining plant-based protein with animal fat11,12, while others, like the company Lypid, based in San Francisco, are attempting to create plant-based fats that will replicate the properties of animal fat13,14, in order to keep next generation plant-based meat fully vegan.

Interestingly enough, cultivated meat may even become a way to have meat tasting experiences hitherto unreachable to modern humans. For example, Vow Food, an Australian food company, makes meatballs made from woolly mammoth meat, an animal that has been extinct for 5000 years.

So, it’s all good, right?

After seeing the societal factors limiting a widespread adoption of a meat-free diet, MIRAI Foods and similar companies across the globe are working to provide us with an alternative: ethically produced and healthier real red meat. But how sensible is it really to rely on such sources for the future? Is this really the solution to the problems connected with meat consumption that we are facing? Truly sustainable protein production means a reduction in the resources used to get protein on our plate, and cultivated meat still implies resources at every step that could be avoided on a plant-based diet. Furthermore, with the advent of these new technologies, consumers are further alienated from the processes that produce their food.

Truly sustainable protein production means a reduction in the resources used to get protein on our plate, and cultivated meat still implies resources at every step that could be avoided on a plant-based diet.

In the final article of the Future of Protein series, we will discover another solution to the health and sustainability crisis of protein: reconnecting to our food systems. With that, we will then make a prediction - what will the protein on our plate look like in 2050?

Cultivated-meat: a how-to guide.

To build meat, you need to make the right building blocks, which is essentially muscle and fat. It starts by taking a small biopsy from the cow, which has to contain both muscle and fat, because the cells that are used to make muscle come from muscle, and the cells that are used to make fat come from fat. Pre-muscle cells and pre-fat cells are harvested from an animal via a small biopsy. The end product, nutritionally speaking, is very similar to meat produced via conventional methods. The cultivated muscle cells contain similar types of protein and micronutrients as real meat. The cultivated fat can even have more unsaturated fat than the traditional meat, which could provide a more beneficial nutritional profile (Source: Interview with Alexandre Morel, Head of Bioprocess and Technology Development at Mirai Foods).

I highly recommend taking the Good Food Institute’s MOOC (it’s free) if you want to delve deeper into alternative protein technologies.




Anne Jomard is an Associate Registered Nutritionist and obtained her PhD in Translational Nutrition Biology from ETH in 2020. She is currently working as a Research Scientist in the biotech field and is interested in understanding the latest developments in technology, and how those will impact our lives. She is part of the 2023 Scimpact program.

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