It’s already being served in a Singapore restaurant, can be tasted at a restaurant near Tel Aviv, and will soon be on the menu of two restaurants in the United States. Cultured meat, banned in Italy by law, is starting to appear in the rest of the world with chicken meatballs, burgers, steaks, fish fillets and animal feed, even if it takes years to see it on supermarket shelves. This is explained by Stefano Peresi, professor of molecular biology at the University of Trento and advisor to the only Italian startup operating in this sector.
Cultivated, not artificial. It is not correct to define these meats as “artificial” or “artificial,” because the production process does not involve chemical synthetic reactions. Cultivated meat “is produced from muscle stem cells taken from the animal via biopsy,” Peresi says. “Cells are grown in bioreactors using a culture fluid that contains nutrients and factors necessary to stimulate first proliferation, then differentiation and maturation to form muscle cells. The entire production process can take a few weeks: getting a piece of muscle requires millions of cells.” Some research groups are also studying non-muscle cells to produce other components of meat such as fat and blood vessels.
Products available. Ten years after the production of the world’s first hamburger, which was grown in the Netherlands, most chicken nuggets (meatballs that usually also contain plant-based meat) are produced today, “but at an experimental level a wide range of meats have already been obtained, e.g. Beef”. And pork, sheep and even fish meat,” recalls the expert. “Producing meatballs or minced meat is easier, but there are already attempts to recreate the shape and structure of steak using 3D printers and scaffolds for cell growth. The resulting products are not entirely comparable to the original ones and still have a great deal of efficiency.” Large-scale production costs are high.
Advantages. Cultured meat promises to be healthier and more controlled than conventional meat and, above all, to reduce the use of intensive farming, saving emissions, and consuming water, soil and energy. However, the available data are conflicting. A recent study conducted by the University of California found that producing one kilo of cultured meat can release carbon dioxide equivalents into the environment equivalent to 4 to 25 times the emissions of conventional production. “Making environmental impact estimates is difficult, because each product requires different ingredients and methods,” comments Peresi. “We must then take into account that many of the studies that identify cultured meat as more energy-intensive and environmentally harmful, evaluate production processes and experimental protocols that often use highly refined products and standards (borrowed for example from regenerative medicine) and which “Obviously it can’t. It can be applied to large-scale food production.”
Expanding market. There are about 180 startups around the world involved in research related to grown food. Forecasts for 2030 expect the market size to range between $5 to $25 billion. Employment estimates are also positive: for the UK alone, they expect between 9,200 and 16,500 additional jobs to be created.
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