Will we eat laboratory meat tomorrow? Will breeders one day belong to the world of the past, replaced by researchers in white coats? So many questions that sound like science fiction. And yet, a first step has already been taken in Southeast Asia.
Artificial chicken meat – in this case nuggets – will soon be available in restaurants in Singapore, following the green light from local health authorities. “A world first” according to the American start-up Eat Just at the origin of the project, which made the announcement on December 2, welcoming in a statement “a breakthrough for the global food industry “.
1What are we talking about exactly?
“Artificial”, “cultivated”, “laboratory” meat … The very name is debated. But concretely, it is a question of creating meat in the laboratory from cells, hence the term “in vitro” which is generally found. Clearly, the manufacturing process is “unnatural”, with the human hand behind it.
Today, dozens of start-ups around the world are working on the creation of artificial meat: Memphis Meats, Beyond Meat, Just Food … France, the Gourmey company aims to create foie gras in vitro by 2022.
2What is the manufacturing process?
The principle is to cultivate stem cells from animals. “In research laboratories, you take a small piece, for example of muscle. The cells will multiply in a box or a reactor, and turn into muscle fiber at the end “, details to franceinfo Jean-François Hocquette, research director at the Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (Inrae). This method requires a culture medium “which provides energy: amino acids to make proteins, hormones and growth factors “, he specifies.
3What are the promises?
On paper, the advantages are numerous. Starting with that of animal welfare, since it no longer requires killing animals. There are others. “In terms of health, we would no longer use antibiotics in animals, which would remove the risk of resistance to antibiotics in humans”, underline to franceinfo Romain Espinosa, researcher in economics at the CNRS and specialist in animal issues.
“We also reduce the risk of zoonoses (editor’s note: human infectious diseases of animal origin). And eventually, we will be able to detect the cells that pose a problem in meat, those potentially carcinogenic”, he adds. In addition, intensive breeding for meat consumption emits methane, favoring the greenhouse effect. Companies specializing in artificial meat intend to offer an alternative, other than plant-based products.
4Why is artificial meat debated?
Behind the promises, a lot of uncertainties. Let us return first to the semantic debate: is it really meat? No, according to Jean-François Hocquette. “Muscle is normally a tissue in a living animal, composed essentially of muscle fibers surrounded by a connective tissue where we find nerves, blood vessels, fatty cells … The muscle is attached to the animal skeleton , he is in tension “, he emphasizes. So, “vsThis gives it properties which depend on the location of the muscle in the body. The manufacturers only reproduced an imperfect muscle because the muscle is not attached to the bones during the in vitro process. “
The other fear is linked to the culture medium of this meat in vitro. For now, in research laboratories, “the more effective solution is to use fetal calf serum”, serum taken … at the time of slaughter of the animals.
“Companies say they will replace this serum with hormones and growth factors that they will manufacture. But there is the problem of the cost of manufacture and the possible pollution linked to this manufacture”, underlines Jean-François Hocquette. Finally, the experts warn against the uncertainty about the possible health risks for consumers and believe that we still lack perspective.
5When will she arrive in France?
It is impossible to say precisely. For the time being, despite innovations and competition between start-ups, the technology is still experimental, particularly in terms of production costs. “Most labs know how to do cell culture on a small scale, in plastic boxes. Switching to a commercial prototype requires additional costs, to rethink the device so that it is effective “, says Jean-François Hocquette.
This would also imply an evolution of European rules, which prohibit the addition of hormonal implants in traditional breeding. The European legislator could object to their use in the culture medium.
Finally, the question is debated in society, as in government. “Is this really the society we want for our children?”, wonders the Minister of Agriculture and Food, Julien Denormandie, hoping that in France “the meat remains natural and never artificial”.
Is this really the society we want for our children? Me no.
I say it clearly: meat comes from life, not from laboratories. Count on me so that in France, meat remains natural and never artificial! https://t.co/xNjccFyKUz
– Julien Denormandie (@J_Denormandie) December 2, 2020
“What is a pity is that we are not investing in this subject in France”, regrets Romain Espinosa. Even if he recognizes that the uncertainties are still very strong, he considers that France should not fall behind on this technology. “OWe’re going to be eaten, it’s obvious and it’s a shame “.