Would you eat cultivated meats grown in a lab from animal cells? Tatler explores whether they are really more sustainable and if they will find a permanent place on Asia’s chicest dining tables

Additional reporting by Rachel Duffell.

As a food writer, I’ve tried just about everything that can be served on a dining table (and some things that perhaps shouldn’t be). But the idea of eating cultivated meat—also known as cell‑based, cultured or lab‑grown meat, which is meat made from animal cells rather than the meat of slaughtered livestock—still gave me pause. Is it safe? Is it healthy? And is it really more sustainable than the real thing?

In December 2020, the Singapore Food Agency approved the sale of cultivated meat in Singapore, the first government body in the world to do so. The approval was for cultivated chicken meat developed by American food tech company Eat Just’s Good Meat subsidiary, and the product—billed as the future of food and presented in bite‑sized nugget form—debuted at private members club 1880. Later, dishes using Good Meat cultivated chicken meat were featured in Cantonese restaurant Madame Fan’s delivery menu.

Despite my initial hesitation, I threw caution to the wind and sampled Madame Fan’s chicken and rice—breaded Good Meat chicken cutlets set atop fragrant jasmine rice, served with heritage carrots, micro shiso and edible flowers. The perfectly seasoned cultivated chicken meat tasted just like “natural” chicken breast, with a noticeably smoother, more tender texture.

Seventeen months on, Good Meat chicken remains the only cultivated meat currently commercially available here. But more food tech companies are following suit and developing their own cultivated meat products, aiming to ease the food demands of a rapidly growing population and develop a more sustainable way of producing meat that is better for the planet.

Finding Alternatives

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has forecast that the current 7.9 billion global population will surpass 9 billion by 2050. This means that food production needs to ramp up, something that is proving to be a challenge with 27 per cent of earth (an area as big as North and South America combined) already used for livestock farming. The oceans aren’t doing any better: the Census of Marine Life 2010 statistics revealed that 90 per cent of large fish, including the ones we love to eat, such as Atlantic salmon, Atlantic cod, tuna and halibut, have already disappeared from our waters.

The rate at which humans are eating meat and seafood is not sustainable. But expecting everyone to eschew animal products entirely is unrealistic. One solution comes in the form of resource‑efficient alternative proteins, including plant‑based products designed to mimic meat and cultivated meats developed from animal cells. These have already drawn an interest that is only growing. Investment in the alternative proteins market grew 60 per cent from 2020 to 2021 globally, according to data analysis by the Good Food Institute (GFI), Asia’s leading alternative proteins think tank, with year‑on‑year growth in Asia Pacific jumping from US$162 million in 2020 to US$312 million in 2021, an increase of 92 per cent. Within the alternative proteins market in Asia Pacific, cultivated meats in particular have been gaining ground recently.

“Cultivated meat is vastly more efficient, requiring significantly less land, water and other inputs than what is typically required to raise livestock,” says Mirte Gosker, acting managing director of GFI. “It eliminates the inherent inefficiency of feeding crops and resources to animals to get only a tiny fraction of those resources back in the form of animal meat. The key to sustainable protein production is to divorce making meat from industrial animal agriculture.”

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Leading the Charge

With less than 1 per cent of its land set aside for agriculture, Singapore has long been aware of its susceptibility when it comes to food security, which has been the driver in the development of a vibrant food tech scene. “It is no coincidence that Singapore has been among the earliest countries to go all‑in on building new methods of protein production, because the nation’s limited availability of natural resources makes it acutely vulnerable to food supply disruptions,” says Gosker.

The nation’s dedication to developing food  technology is part of its “30 by 30” plan to ensure that 30 per cent of Singapore’s nutritional needs are met with local produce by 2030. Currently, that figure stands at less than 10 per cent.

But the Lion City is not the only place at risk. The global pandemic has highlighted the fragility of food supply chains, while resource scarcity will increasingly become an issue for many countries as populations grow, GDP increases and meat consumption continues to rise.

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Home Grown

The cultivated meat by Eat Just’s Good Meat may have been the first of its kind to be approved in Singapore, but a number of Asian companies are hoping to further the market. Singapore’s Shiok Meats aims to bring lab‑grown seafood to our dining tables by 2023. CEO Dr Sandhya Sriram, a stem cell biologist by training, says she first came across cultured meat in 2014 and was so impressed with it that she wanted to be part of this food revolution. With fellow stem cell biologist Dr Ling Ka Yi, she founded Shiok Meats in 2018. “I strongly believed that a sustainable solution using technology was required to feed the ever‑increasing population without creating additional pressure on the otherwise declining ocean health,” she says.

Shiok Meats’ cell‑based seafood is created by isolating stem cells from live crustaceans such as shrimps, lobsters and crabs, and growing them in a “nutrient broth” contained in small stainless steel tanks called bioreactors. As the cells expand, they are moved to bigger bioreactors, where they grow into a large enough mass to form the meat. The whole process takes four to six weeks, and makes use of starter cultures from a stem cell bank, so it is not necessary to continually harvest cells from the animals, protecting the oceans from further depletion.

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“Alternative proteins such as cultivated seafood reduce the pressure on wild‑caught seafood, enabling ocean habitats and populations to recover from the damage caused over the years. Our patent‑pending technology is an animal‑friendly, environment‑friendly and health‑friendly way of growing seafood from the cells instead of killing animals,” says Sriram, whose company also owns Southeast Asia’s first cultivated red meat company Gaia Foods, which is working on creating structured red meat products such as beef steaks and pork chops without the need for animal slaughter. It also uses less energy as well as land and water resources compared to conventional meat production.

Carrie Chan had a similar goal in 2018 when she founded Avant Meats in Hong Kong with scientist and bioentrepreneur Dr Mario Chin. “I was trying to promote a non‑animal‑product diet,” says Chan, who went vegan in 2014. “But I found there was a lot of social pressure to consume animal products and I saw that relying on one solution—plant‑based meat—may not be sufficient. So when I came across the technology of using cells to make meat, I thought, why not give it a try?”

Avant has developed two food products to date: fish fillet and fish maw, the latter a world first. Asian nations are some of the world’s biggest consumers of seafood, so it is appropriate that two of the continent’s leading cell‑based meat producers are focused on finding alternatives. “Asia has a lot of culture around seafood; there are a lot of coastal cities and many of us grew up eating a lot of seafood,” says Chan. “It’s also very interesting because [seafood comprises] diverse species and different product types, which open up a whole new opportunity for the application of technology.”

Hong Kong has yet to approve cultivated meat. And while China’s President Xi Jinping voiced his support for food innovation and protein diversification earlier this year, and included cultivated meat and other “future foods” in his national five‑year agricultural plan, it may be some time yet before other countries follow Singapore’s example.

To speed things along and scale up for cost‑effective production, Avant recently announced a collaboration with Singapore’s leading public sector R & D agency, A*Star’s Bioprocessing Technology Institute (BTI). BTI’s executive director Koh Boon Tong understands the increased interest in cultivated meat due to sustainability and global food security concerns, and hopes that through collaborations such as the one with Avant, they can “innovate and create future food solutions for Singapore and beyond”. Avant’s pilot plant in Singapore aims to begin operations in early 2023, with its cultivated fish products available to general consumers soon after.

Beyond Meat

Lab-grown alternatives don’t stop at meat and fish. While cultivated meats are the shining examples of cellular agriculture, their science extends to lab‑produced dairy products. Singapore biotech company TurtleTree came about because co‑founder Lin Fengru was unable to find high‑quality milk to fuel her cheesemaking hobby. “She travelled to many dairy farms throughout Asia to find quality milk, but what she found instead were cows being pumped with hormones, unsanitary living conditions for the livestock and even the feeding of contaminated water to animals,” says TurtleTree co‑founder Max Rye. “That was when Fengru started thinking about a way to produce quality milk that was healthy and nutritious, all without causing harm to animals or the environment.”

TurtleTree’s goal is to create a cell‑based milk with the same composition as the real thing, but in the process of making that commercially viable, it is focused on producing high‑value milk‑derived functional proteins such as lactoferrin. This bioactive ingredient can be used to “fortify gut health and the immune system”, Rye says, and is used as a supplemental ingredient in products such as infant formula and performance supplements. It is made through a combination of lab cultivation and precision fermentation, which, Rye explains, uses “microbial hosts as cell factories to produce complex organic molecules such as proteins, and is a safe and reliable method to produce food products sustainably and at a reasonable cost”.

TurtleTree raised US$30 million of investment in its first round of funding last year, and is working towards developing lactoferrin as its first commercial product, pending regulatory approval.

Challenging Conventions

Cultivated animal products are already dividing opinion, despite the fact that few have sampled them—in Singapore, the number of people who have bought such products is estimated to be fewer than 1,000. “This is not due to a lack of demand, but rather, because only very limited quantities are being produced,” says Gosker.

While cultivated meats are not approved for sale yet in Hong Kong, Carmen Ng is “open to learning more about the science and technology behind [them]”, particularly given the “immediate sustainability benefits as compared to regular meat, [including] the use of fewer natural resources, minimising food wastage and deforestation”. The director of sustainability at Langham Hospitality Group in Hong Kong has not tried cultivated meats yet, but says that the group was an early adopter of plant‑based proteins such as Omnipork, which it uses in its restaurants.

Meanwhile, chef Tsang Chiu King, culinary director at Langham Hospitality Group’s Cantonese restaurant Ming Court Wanchai, says: “There will be a lot to learn and understand about cultivated meats—which culinary techniques will work best, how to bring out the best of their flavour and texture, as well as what ingredients complement them.” But first, he wants to be sure that “they are safe for and harmless to the body” before considering offering them on the menu.

Chef Eddy Leung, who runs private kitchen Chef Studio by Eddy in Hong Kong, feels that while market acceptance of the products will take time, chefs can play a key role in encouraging their use. He has worked with Avant to taste‑test and further develop the formulation of its products ahead of commercialisation. “The texture of real fish is better, but I think this is really good,” he says of his experience working with Avant’s fish products, which are branded under the name Avie. He has used both the fish maw and the fish fillet in Chinese and Western preparations alike, and is open to doing more. “If it’s a great product and is really successful, it can help to save our planet,” he says.

This is precisely what is driving TurtleTree’s Rye, who expounds: “Cellular agriculture entirely eliminates the staggering amount of resources needed for growing livestock and instead taps into the basic building blocks of life—cells—to efficiently grow only specific parts of an animal for meat, and to create animal products such as milk and eggs.”

What’s more, as Shiok Meats’ Sriram says, cultivated seafood is still “real seafood” that comes from its cells. She notes that “the flavours are inherently present in the cells” and that preliminary analysis has shown that the protein content is similar to that of conventional seafood.

In the Philippines, where cultured meat is yet to be approved and there are currently no local cell‑based producers, there is some uncertainty. Sustainability champion and Southeast Asia councillor of Slow Food International Chit Juan raises the question of whether cultivated meat is really a solution. “It will have to be [easily] available,” which includes being affordable, she states, otherwise it doesn’t address the issue of food security. And on top of that, people need to be willing to eat food made from animal cells. “Being part of the slow food movement, we’re really big on natural. I’d rather eat the nose to tail of a real animal,” she says.

Making cultivated meat more accessible will take time, but the aim is to achieve price parity with its conventional equivalents. And in terms of consumer openness? “[They] will ultimately decide whether to purchase cultivated meat based on whether they believe it will taste as good as—or better than—the conventional meat they are used to and whether it costs the same—or less. If start‑ups can achieve that ‘holy grail’ combination, consumer interest will soar,” says Gosker.

Filipino plant‑based advocate and cookbook author Juana Manahan-Yupangco is open to the idea of cell‑based meats—though she admits this was not always the case. Currently studying for a master’s degree in global food security and nutrition at the University of Edinburgh, she says that had anyone asked her before she began her studies whether she would ever incorporate cell‑based meats into her plant‑based diet, her answer would have been a definitive no. Why? “It’s still meat; it’s still an animal,” she explains. “But three years [of study] shows you it’s really not black and white.”

Plus, there are environmental benefits to cultivated meat. “There are three things when you talk about sustainability: greenhouse gas, land use and water consumption. With cultivated meat, you eliminate water and land use, though not the greenhouse gas emission—that’s just transferred. It’s not completely sustainable, but it’s still early in the game,” says Manahan-Yupangco. “It also limits the animal cruelty part, and you don’t have to be worried about [added] hormones.”

Throw in the elimination of the risk of contributing to zoonotic disease spread or antibiotic‑resistant superbugs as well as the ability to produce more food in less time with fewer resources, increasing food security, and cultivated meat seems like a no-brainer. “Between a climate crisis that is ravaging traditional agricultural systems and the lingering effects of the latest pandemic, humanity badly needs a stable and healthy food supply, immune to future disruptions,” says Gosker.

As with most new technologies, transparency and education are key to consumer acceptance. Before closing the door on cultivated meat, Avant’s Chan encourages people to avoid forming opinions without all the information and to not be put off by terms such as “lab‑grown”, something I may have been guilty of.

Looking back on my experience of Madame Fan’s chicken and rice, I wonder if I had tasted the future of food. A deeper understanding of the science behind cultured meats and other cell‑based creations, their production processes, and their many benefits pertaining to sustainability, animal welfare, environmental protection and food security indicates that they certainly deserve a place on our dining tables in the future—and we should ensure they are able to claim that place if we want to dine for a better world.

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