Will COVID-19 change our relationship with meat?
What’s the context?
During coronavirus lockdowns, many began turning away from conventional animal meat for ethical, environmental or safety reasons. Is lab-grown meat the future?
In a vast, illuminated greenhouse set among Iceland's otherworldly lava fields, the genetically modified shoots of an ancient cereal crop may hold the key to the food of the future.
Using abundant geothermal waters for heating and volcanic ash instead of soil, biotech company ORF Genetics is growing barley here to produce growth factors - one of the most important, and costly, ingredients in laboratory-grown meat.
Sales of plant-based meats have soared during the pandemic as customers shift diets due to growing unease about factory farming, working conditions in meat-packing plants and suspicion over a possible link between wild animal meat and COVID-19.
ORF and other firms hope that means more people will want to try cell-cultured meat when it becomes available in the next year or so, though high costs and doubtful consumers could mean "clean meats" - as the nascent industry calls them - take longer to gain acceptance.
"This technology - taking a stem cell and turning it into meat - will have a huge impact on the environment," Bjorn Orvar, co-founder and chief scientific officer of ORF, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Iceland's capital, Reykjavik.
"Because then you will reduce land use so much. And you will really reduce the emissions and water consumption... This will also make local food production much easier," he said.
Greater concern about such issues may have fuelled demand for soy sausages, bean burgers and other plant-based meats during global coronavirus lockdowns.
Between March 21 and June 20, U.S. sales of fresh plant-based meat were up by triple digits every week compared to last year, according to non-profit The Good Food Institute (GFI), which analysed data from market research firm Nielsen.
Sales of fresh traditional meat also grew during the same period, although at a much lower rate.
Beyond Meat, which makes vegan burgers and sausages, posted a 96% increase in net revenue in the first half of 2020 and launched an e-commerce site in August to sell directly to consumers.
The emergence of the coronavirus and The Game Changers, a documentary about athletes who follow plant-based diets, encouraged British teacher Melanie Devaney to return to her vegetarian roots.
"There are enough alternatives to meat and my kids enjoy these alternatives too," said Devaney, who lives in New Zealand.
Will West, a corporate executive in Britain, said working from home had forced him - sometimes reluctantly - to adapt to his family's preference for a plant-based diet.
"I've experimented with more different types and brands of plant-based products – some have been so bad from a texture and taste perspective, and some have been really surprisingly good," he said.
'Wake up call'
In Asia too, market researcher Euromonitor is expecting the region's market for plant-based options - typically based on soybeans or other grains or pulses - to grow by 11.6% this year.
China, whose 1.4 billion population could sway global demand, is set to have a "phenomenal year" with both local and international plant-based products entering the market, said Elaine Siu, managing director for GFI in Asia Pacific.
"This pandemic is a wake-up call to address the many issues in our food system associated with conventional meat production," added Siu, who is based in Hong Kong.
The trend bodes well for the whole alternative protein sector, she said, including companies trying to produce beef, pork, poultry and seafood by nurturing animal cells in a petri-dish and then in large bioreactors resembling beer-brewing vats.
The sector, which also involves companies using age-old fermentation methods to create protein, raised $1.5 billion in investments in the first seven months of 2020, a record figure and 80% more than the whole of 2019, GFI said.
Still, for many consumers, moving from soy- or mung bean-based burgers to steak or seafood grown from animal stem cells is too big a leap.
In interviews with more than a dozen consumers in Asia, Europe and the United States - all of whom had bought plant-based products, about half found the idea of cultured meat unappealing.
But some welcomed the possibility of an alternative to traditional meat, and its downsides.
"Any food which doesn't involve killing animals, but may help people get away from cruelty, even if temporarily, is good," said Emilia, an Italian artist in Iceland who asked to use only her first name.
While she likes the taste of burgers, she avoids meat for ethical reasons.
Consumer reluctance is not the only hurdle ahead for the cultured meat pioneers. They will also need approval from regulators, and production costs remain high.
Clearing a major hurdle
At ORF's space-age greenhouse, the scientists chose barley - one of the first cultivated grains - because it can grow under tough conditions and does not cross-pollinate, meaning strains genetically modified for different purposes can grow side by side.
Their 2,000-square-metre (21,000-square-foot) greenhouse, set among earthquake-prone lava fields in southwest Iceland, houses 130,000 barley plants in various stages of growth.
The barley seeds have been bio-engineered to produce growth factors, proteins that stimulate the growth of specific tissues including those needed to recreate animal muscle and fat cells.
When the grains mature after about three and a half months, the growth factor is extracted in the laboratory.
Orvar said the technique is more cost-effective and makes it easier to ramp up production of cell-cultured meat compared with using growth factors from more conventional sources such as E.coli bacteria or human tissue.
ORF has used the same approach to produce a line of anti-aging skin products called BIOEFFECT, but saw the huge potential for its technology to lower the cost of lab-grown meat.
The new direction landed the company among 64 "game-changing" start-ups chosen by the European Innovation Council in July to share a funding pot totalling just over 300 million euros ($360 million).
In late August, ORF launched the new barley-based growth factors aimed at cultured meat producers, which are crucially cheaper than other products available on the market, Orvar said.
He said the prices of ORF's new line were 50% to 60% lower than competitors and should fall further within five years.
"Our goal is to make these growth factors affordable," he said, adding the company is focusing initially on growth factors for beef and pork.
While the costs of producing meat in a lab have fallen dramatically, they remain a major hurdle to mass production.
In 2013, when the world's first lab-grown burger was unveiled, it had a hefty price tag of 250,000 euros. Since then, production costs have fallen dramatically to around $100 a kilo - still far more than top-quality Argentine beef.
Making growth factors cheaper and ramping up their supply is key to reducing prices still further, said Daan Luining, co-founder and CTO of Dutch start-up Meatable, which is working on cell-based pork.
Their production "is the biggest contributor to the cost process" of cultured meat currently, he said, adding numerous projects were under way.
The creator of the 250,000-euro burger - vascular biologist Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands - has since co-founded a cell-cultured meat company called Mosa Meat.
It is working to develop its own growth factors and aims to have its first pilot production plant for cultured meat operational by mid-2021, said operations coordinator Beckie Calder-Flynn.
Proponents of cell-cultured meat often highlight the enormous potential reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared with intensive livestock farming.
Others, however, caution that cultured-meat production would need to minimise energy use and avoid fossil fuels in order to be a truly climate-friendly alternative.
Globally, rearing livestock accounts for about 14.5% of planet-warming emissions, according to the United Nations, and land used for agriculture is a major driver of deforestation.
Ruminants such as cattle, buffalo, sheep and goats produce nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and methane, which is the main gas they release, mostly through belching.
Scientists are working on ways to reduce those emissions, including by breeding animals that burp less and adjusting their diets to produce less methane.
And as the pandemic encourages people to pay more attention to what they eat and how it is produced, there could be greater pressure for consumers in rich countries who currently eat more meat than necessary to cut their intake.
"If immediate changes in eating patterns as a result of COVID-19 are retained in the longer-term, one possible opportunity to emerge... may be a shift away from over-consumption of meat," said a recent paper by Cambridge University Press.
Changing what people grow and eat from animal-based to plant-based diets, particularly in high- and upper-middle-income countries, could offset more than a decade's worth of emissions, according to an analysis by New York University.
Despite signs of a shift in consumer consciousness, Daniel Vennard, the London-based head of Better Buying Lab at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think-tank, cautioned against looking only at the rosy picture painted by rising sales of plant-based meats.
GFI data showed meat sales also grew and because meat has a much higher base, it reduced plant-based meat's market share from 1.5% in early March to 1.27% in early May, he said.
"Without the plant-based meats growing share of total meat category - causing a corresponding decline in meat – it's a limited win for the environment or animal welfare," he added.
Still, the greater interest in plant-based meats among younger demographics could indicate a new trend, said Caroline Bushnell, U.S.-based associate director at GFI.
She pointed to a recent survey by research firm Datassential where a quarter of American respondents said they were less likely to buy meat due to COVID-19 outbreaks among meat plant workers.
In addition, 29% said they were less likely to order meat dishes when dining out and 47% say they would switch to meat alternatives.
Younger consumers were more likely to express those sentiments in each case, the survey found.
Richard Horsey, the co-author of "Ugly Food: Overlooked and Undercooked", a book about tasty, cheap and sustainable foods, said the pandemic led him to buy shares in Beyond Meat.
He has misgivings, however, about whether the search for alternative meats based on plants or grown from cells will pave the way to a greener global diet in decades to come.
"The connection between us and what we eat is so important for environmental, animal welfare and health reasons. Once that's lost, it spells trouble ahead," he said.
"It would be better if everyone got more in touch with their food, or ate much less meat."