Cultivated meat project devours $10m grant at Tufts

As the world’s demand for protein grows, food production needs to keep pace. Farming animal meat is also a significant contributor to carbon emissions worldwide, as well as one of the biggest emitters of methane – an even more potent greenhouse gas.

A team led by David Kaplan, the Stern Family Professor of Engineering will combine the multi-disciplinary efforts of engineers, biologists, nutrition researchers and social scientists at Tufts University, Massachusetts, US, along with contributors from other universities, in an effort to produce an alternative source of sustainable protein that can enhance food sustainability, nutrition and security.

Kaplan, a Distinguished Professor at Tufts and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and his team have led some of the early work in the field of cultivated meat production. He says that this new industry could provide nutritious and safe foods, while reducing the environmental impact and resource usage, with a target of significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water use over traditional meat production.

To achieve these goals, the interdisciplinary teams will work together to evaluate consumer acceptance of cultivated meat; measure the environmental impact of the manufacturing process; assess the economic viability compared to farm production, and prepare the next generation of the industry’s workforce.

“Part of our research will look at improving the nutritional content, shelf life and other qualities of cell-based meat, along with assessments of impact on consumer perceptions and acceptance,” said Kaplan, whose team of PhD students – Natalie Rubio, Andrew Stout, John Yuen, Michael Saad, Sophie Letcher and Jake Marko – will be working with him on the effort.

The researchers aim to provide a scientific basis for understanding what the total costs of producing cultivated meat from beginning to end and how it compares to current methods of animal meat production.

They will also be conducting life-cycle assessments, examining all the inputs that go into growing meat from cells, including the ingredients; the energy required; the resources needed, such as water supply and transportation of materials, and also the waste that comes from the process, including greenhouse gases.

There will also be an educational program developed for schools designed to inspire students to learn about cellular agriculture and the technological advances that could reshape the industry in the future.

Partner institutions in the research will be looking at cell isolations from other species; improvement of the meat in terms of authentic flavor and texture; nutritional analysis, and consumer acceptance. The University of California at Davis will be focused on food science; the University of Massachusetts, Boston, will gather data on the sustainability of cellular agriculture; researchers at Virginia State will focus on the nutritional aspects of the new products, and those at MIT will be focused on AI and modelling approaches to optimise media formulations for cell culture.

With companies in Israel, Japan, and the US already working on producing cell-cultured meat resembling beef, chicken and seafood, with some examples already available in restaurants worldwide, there is a growing industry of cultivated meat. The next step is to transition to large-scale production to meet rising demand.

Kaplan said: “The challenges are huge. From an engineering perspective, every time you scale to the next level there are new limitations in terms of energy requirements, moving and combining materials, dealing with safety and contamination issues.

“The commercial and academic laboratory efforts have so far mostly produced small-scale amounts of cell-grown tissues for meat from a laboratory setting, but we are looking at industrial-level scale up in the future and how this might be accomplished.”

Kaplan noted the largely positive reception from consumers to plant-derived meats, such as Impossible’s burgers and Beyond Burgers: “You see those in supermarkets everywhere now, far exceeding anybody’s projections. So whether it’s a similar response to cell-based meat or not we don’t know. We are anticipating positive views, but we can’t be sure.

“Part of our research will look at improving the nutritional content, shelf life, tastes and flavor, and other qualities of cell-based meat, and that may also have an impact on consumer perceptions and acceptance. If life-cycle analysis shows significant advantages in sustainability and environmental impact, that could also have a positive effect on acceptance as well”.

E&T is tracking the changes in our food and drink consumption. Artificial meat is a prime example of the changes that are proving both necessary and popular. With vast quantities of meat consumed daily via fast food outlets, this is one key area for all types of cultured meat products to address.

There is already a variety of approaches at play. Earlier this year, researchers from Boston College demonstrated for the first time that the veiny skeleton of a spinach leaf can support the growth of artificial meat.

However, the public’s acceptance and enthusiastic embrace of ‘fake meat’ will be crucial in effecting significant change and there are difficulties in persuading people to embrace lifestyle changes, despite their claims of wanting to see urgent action on climate change. The results of a YouGov poll last month of people in seven Western European countries showed that up to 50 per cent of people were reluctant to give up eating meat, as well as being opposed to the planned ban on new petrol or diesel vehicles.