Commentary: Is lab-grown meat a new frontier or a passing fad?

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BY PAUL TENG

SINGAPORE: This week, Singapore made global headlines by being the first country in the world to approve a lab-grown meat for general public consumption.

Eat Just, a San Francisco-based company, will soon debut its “chicken bites” here, which feature meat developed from animal cells in laboratories.

This comes on the heels of recent news of Singaporean company Shiok Meats being the first in the world to culture lobster meat and before that, shrimp meat, in the lab.  And another local startup, TurtleTree Labs, has won awards for its lab-grown milk.

Is Singapore the bellwether of a new disruptive industry?

Millions of startup investment dollars, both in Singapore and other developed economies like the US, have been poured into developing lab-grown meat (also known as cultured or cell-based meat) with its proponents showing a passion that seems to match that seen during the dot com era.

The alternative meat market, on the whole, was worth US$14 billion in 2019 – just one per cent of the US$1.4 trillion global meat industry. But Barclays estimates it will grow ten times its size to US$140 billion by 2029.

ALTERNATIVE PROTEINS IN SINGAPORE

Tissue culture from plant and animal cells is not in itself a new technology, and the former has been used to produce high yielding clones of economically important crops like rubber and banana.

But tremendous advances in molecular science, cell culture technology, bioreactor engineering and food science make it possible to assemble cells into tissues which resemble the meat from slaughtered animals.

Singapore’s high standards for regulating food safety are well-recognised, and is probably a factor behind Eat Just’s decision to launch their product here.

In the food industry, it is important for authorities to employ “science-based” and “transparent” criteria and processes to regulate new or novel foods.

Lab-grown meat further aligns closely with the “Singapore Food Story”, an initiative by the Government to strengthen the country’s food security. One of its major thrusts is to encourage innovation in alternative proteins at home.

With limited land and water resources, Singapore’s potential to improve its food self-sufficiency is to rely on technology-enabled farming and culturing meat in bioreactors.

Both are akin to growing food in traditional agriculture systems, albeit using less space and capitalising on the country’s high technological capabilities.

These reasons have provided the impetus for Singapore to move its agriculture into controlled environments, such as vertical vegetable farms.

WILL LAB-GROWN MEATS GAIN TRACTION?

Climate change also adds significant pressure on food systems, which may accelerate the foray into lab-grown meat globally.

The livestock industry is a major source of greenhouse gases, uses much water and land, and is pollutive when animal excreta is left untreated.

Animals are also inefficient converters of plant material into protein.

The above on their own would form compelling arguments not to grow and slaughter animals for food.  And this is before the ethical and sometimes religious reasons for not killing animals are considered.

Another argument is that lab-cultured meat is grown in sterile containers (bioreactors), with no use of antibiotics and no fear of passing on toxic bacteria. Eat Just said safety tests found its cultured chicken to have “extremely low and significantly cleaner microbiological content”, compared to traditional chicken.

While rural farming is likely to remain the main source of the world’s food, there is a movement to intensify efforts to not only make farming more sustainable but to develop alternative solutions that can feed the world.

NOTE: First published by Channel News Asia (https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/lab-grown-chicken-eat-just-cell-cultured-meat-agriculture-food-13699840).