Food from the lab instead of the field – Where do we stand with meat from 3D printers?

Finally, CO2 emissions are at the center of the discussion about the political future of the energy market. This market, induced by the political will to reshape it, has changed dramatically in recent years almost everywhere, most recently even in China (and this year again in the USA). Stopping climate change has become one of the central concerns of policy makers and rulers. As a result, the cards of the energy mix are to be reshuffled almost everywhere in the world. However, the biggest steps to protect the global climate have been announced for after 2030, a time when most of the politicians shaping today’s plans, making grandiose speeches and striking slogans, will probably no longer be in charge. Is it enough for politicians to pay lip service today to what will only be implemented in 10, 20 or even 30 years from now?

In addition, there is a completely different dimension to environmental policy: Our food also causes a significant amount of greenhouse gases, with animal husbandry and feeding accounting for a particularly large proportion of greenhouse gas emissions. Altogether, it accounts to almost 15 percent of the world’s total CO2 emission, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Furthermore, this trend is increasing dramatically, both with the growing world population per se and with the increase in economic power and prosperity in Asia and Africa. What Europeans and Americans take for granted today – the almost daily consumption of meat – would lead globally to an unsustainable increase in animal husbandry and thus in total CO2 emissions in global agriculture. It is already clear today that we can simply no longer afford to keep animals for 10 billion people to eat. Thus, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its „Special Report on Climate Change and Land Systems 2020“ in August 2019 – hardly noticed by the public as well as politicians – also called for a turnaround in human meat consumption. According to the WWF, if we were all to eat vegan only, the carbon footprint of our diet would be reduced by about 40 percent.

However, this is exactly where massive changes could soon occur as a result of technological advances as well, namely through meat that comes from 3D printers. Such „printers“ use, for example, muscle stem cells from cattle that are artificially grown and multiplied and then mixed with nutrients, salts, pH buffers, and so on. The result very likely tastes more delicious and is at the same time healthier than any animal meat to date, and … will come with virtually no CO2 emissions! Anyone who doubts that such artificially produced in-vitro meat is more appetizing or that a diet based on it is healthier should spend a few hours in a large slaughterhouse or visit a reasonably sizable agricultural producer. Then he or she will likely quickly lose his or her appetite for today’s meat.

Eight years ago, scientists from Maastricht University produced the first artificial meatball at a cost of 250,000 euros. Today, such vitro meat is on the verge of being ready for the market, with corresponding 3D bio-printers assembling in series the cultured cell strands into muscle tissue. A number of start-ups announced several years ago that they would soon be bringing their products to market at competitive prices. Meanwhile, as far as palatability is concerned, they are collaborating with gourmet chefs, as well as food engineers, flavor experts and manufacturers of flavors and fragrances with the aim of making the respective taste deceptively similar to that of a corresponding steak today – and even improving it by adding appropriate aromas. Meanwhile, testers are almost unanimous in attesting that the printed steaks taste like real meat and are flavorful, firm to the bite and fibrous just like the original. Will there soon be no more livestock farming, but still meat that no longer comes from pasture, but that we simply print out ourselves? This could ensure that the world’s growing population is fed with meat, thereby reducing its ecological footprint and even improve its sense of well-being when eating. What a great vision!

But where do we stand with this today? In spring 2017, some researchers assumed that the price of an artificial meat hamburger would be around 10 to 11 dollars in 2020. One year later, i.e. around today, artificial meat should then be ready for the market. So where exactly has this led us now?

Clearly, even the „die-hard“ animal eaters have noticed: Vegetarian food products that look like meat and taste more and more like it have multiplied in recent years. In May 2019, for example, U.S.-based Beyond Meat went public at a share price of $25. No one expected the hype surrounding the stock of such a provider of plant-based meat substitutes to be comparable to that of tech stocks. But within less than three months, the price increased almost tenfold (from then and until today it fluctuated but was still at over seven times the issue price in early 2021, then dropped again somewhat until May 2021). But most of these products are based on legumes (e.g. soy „meat,“ i.e. textured soy, lupine seeds, quorn from the tubular fungus Fusarium venenatum), vegetables (e.g. jack fruit, black beans, peas, and chickpeas), grains (e.g. seitan from Japan with a meat-like texture), mushrooms (e.g. sulfur porcini, shiitake), and other vegetable ingredients. With the help of appropriate ingredients such as binders, water, spices, and flavorings they are then increasingly seasoned and flavored so that they can then be sold as imitation of meat as they taste more and more meaty. Meanwhile, even traditionally meat-focused fast-food chains such as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken are offering vegan veggie burgers.

This production of increasingly authentic-looking meat substitutes has come into an increasing competition with the technological development of explicit 3D printing of meat substitutes. But the latter promise even more authentic meat substitutes that are supposed to completely match the texture of meat in terms of appearance as well as taste. That is where the above plant-based meat substitutes are not yet. And exactly that is announced to be revealed within the next months now:

  • The Israeli company Redefine Meat has already planned the market launch of its patented 3D printing technology for meat substitutes, which is to explicitly replicate the texture, taste, and appearance of beef (interestingly, among its investors is Germany’s largest poultry farmer, the PHW group, which, among others, represents the Wiesenhof brand).
  • The company UPSIDE Foods (formerly known as Memphis Meats), originating from the US, announced that also in 2021 (at the end of this year) it will launch chicken type food as the first cell-cultured meat like product.
  • In 2018, the company byflow had already established the first 3D printed restaurant in cooperation with 3-star chef Jan Smink in the Dutch city of Wolvega. However, their food 3D printer is mainly aimed at products in the bakery industry. It works with refillable cartridges containing any pasty food to create customized dishes.

So, this year could be the big turning point for 3D-printed real alternatives to animal meat. It will be extremely exciting to see how these meat substitutes will compete with the original meat products. Considering the popularity of plant-based meat substitutes has grown so quickly, we can expect the new high-tech meat substitutes to enjoy tremendous popularity. This could lead to a historic turnaround in global meat consumption, with a very positive impact on our carbon footprint.

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