Opinion

Europe Is Falling Behind in Cultivated Meat

Cell-based meat has been approved by the American FDA.

Chicken hamburger
Hamburger with cultivated chicken meat (Upside Foods)

America is one step closer to legalizing cultivated meat.

The Food and Drug Administration completed its first so-called pre-market consultation on chicken meat cultivated by Upside Foods of California.

Selling cultivated meat in restaurants and stores will still take approval from the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

So far, Singapore is the only country that allows the sale of cell-based meat.

In addition to the United States, regulators in Israel, Switzerland and the United Kingdom are studying approval.

Europe, where cultivated meat was invented, threatens to fall behind.

Dutch flee to Singapore

Growing meat from the cells of live animals is a Dutch invention. The Netherlands still has two of the largest cultivated-meat companies: Meatable and Mosa Meat. Meatable unveiled a cultivated pork sausage in July.

Made in Singapore.

No European company has yet submitted a product for approval to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

European approval is uncertain

Singapore’s authorities worked with companies to speed up the regulation of cultivated chicken meat.

The FDA is asking firms to reach out, so they can smooth the way to approval.

There is no such thing as “pre-market consultation” in Europe. EFSA, to their credit, is drafting guidelines to remove some of the uncertainty around their risk assessment, which cultivated-meat companies have likened to a “black box”. But the process would still involve consultation with the European Commission and with the public; two potential veto points.

Even if EFSA gives the go-ahead, a council of European ministers would decide whether to let cultivated meat go to market.

Little wonder companies are looking elsewhere.

Daan Luining, a co-founder of Meatable, told The Next Web about his cultivated pork, “Let’s see if we can get it into different jurisdictions.”

Who is pushing back?

The economics of cultivated meat are undeniable: with one gram of cells taken from a live animal, a company can grow 10,000 kilograms (22,000 pounds) of meat. If “factory farming” has a future, this must be it. The American think tank RethinkX estimates that half the cattle in the United States will become redundant in one decade.

That doesn’t mean half the livestock farmers will quit. Farmers could afford to downsize and sell animal tissue, instead of whole animals, to meat companies. There are even proposals to cultivate meat on farms.

The threat is to feed makers, industrial-scale livestock farmers whose profitability is in scale, and meat processing companies. They are the money behind European agricultural lobbies, which are trying to persuade politicians that cultivated meat isn’t real meat.

When Singapore approved cultivated chicken, France’s then-agriculture minister, Julien Denormandie, tweeted, “Meat comes from life, not from laboratories.” The National Assembly preemptively banned cultivated meat from canteens.

France is the largest recipient of almost €60 billion in EU agricultural subsidies.

Why eating meat needs to change

Some 80 billion animals were slaughtered for meat last year, up from 12.5 billion half a century ago.

To feed that many animals, entire rainforests have been cleared in South America and Southeast Asia to grow cereals and soybeans. Both are exempt from EU food import tariffs. The rainforest’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide is reduced while CO₂ is emitted by the ships that bring cereals and soy to Europe.

Cows burb up methane, another greenhouse gas. The manure and urine of farm animals emits nitrous oxide, a third greenhouse gas. Livestock farming causes 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions: more than all cars, trucks, planes and ships combined. We could quit fossil fuels tomorrow and animal agriculture alone would still push us past 1.5˚C of global warming.

77 percent of the world’s farmland and 8 percent of the world’s freshwater is used by livestock farming; land and water that could be used more efficiently to grow cereals, legumes and vegetables for human consumption. Or reforested, to absorb CO₂.

CE Delft, a Dutch research firm, estimates that cultivated meat requires 95 percent less farmland and 78 less freshwater, and causes one-tenth the greenhouse gas emissions of current meat production.

Governments, wake up!

There is some government support. Horizon Europe, the EU’s innovation scheme, has offered €32 million for research into sustainable proteins. The European Commission is funding lab-grown foie gras. The Netherlands will put €60 million into PhD programs and vocational training for cellular agriculture. (If private parties raise another €25 million.)

That is money well spent, but the figures pale in comparison to the billions of euros in subsidies for traditional livestock farming.

What the sector needs more than money is a chance to prove itself. Dutch lawmakers urged their government in March to regulate cultivated meat tastings. That still hasn’t happened. The longer consumers can’t taste cultivated meat, the more time the industry’s opponents will have to fill the minds of consumers with unfounded fears.

Meatable’s shift to Singapore should have been a wake-up call. Upside Foods’ pre-approval from the FDA definitely is. If Europe doesn’t hurry, it will lose the meat of the future.

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