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Episode 12: Lab meat – coming to a butcher near you

Welcome to the 12th episode of the St. Albert Signal, a weekly community podcast about the St. Albert area.

Welcome to the 12th episode of the St. Albert Signal, a weekly community podcast about the St. Albert area. Listen to the 12th episode below:

Lab-grown meat or culture meat, as it is often referred to in the industry, is making ground in Alberta, with start-ups and non-profits working to advance research.

When you think of meat grown in a lab, it raises numerous questions and for a good reason. Nonetheless, the science is fascinating, and the reasons behind it may surprise you.

The meat is grown by harvesting healthy animal cells and using a growth media that nourishes the cells so they can multiply and divide. In theory, the process may seem simple, but there are many parts to the process and producing the meat, especially in the quantities needed for general consumption, is expensive.

One Edmonton-based start-up named Future Fields is focused on creating a less expensive cell-growth media to help make culture meat more affordable and readily available faster.

Matt Anderson-Baron, co-founder and chief technical officer of Future Fields, said you can find some niche culture meat products in Singapore and Israel that have some items available. However, as far as greater availability is concerned, that is still a ways away.

"I think you will start seeing that more often, even within the next year or the next 18 months. You'll see some niche restaurants that carry a few products, probably at a premium because production is still quite a bit higher. I think the bigger challenge is hitting price parody with the conventional meat products, so that is going to be a bit longer out at least seven to 10 years before you see these products on a grocery store shelf," said Anderson-Baron.

Timeline and cost aside, there are multiple reasons why the research into culture meat is so important, and some may be very keen on seeing the industry grow. Reasons such as ethics, environment, sustainability, and accessibility all play a part in the possibilities this meat option holds

At the University of Calgary, Cameron Semper, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Alexei Savchenko, is also researching a more affordable growth media and said his research, which is done with fish cells, produces another possible solution to an Alberta problem.

"My work focuses on fish cells, and one thing that has always been appealing to me, being an Albertan, is that if the production facility could be localized in Alberta, you could have the option of fresh fish for sale in your market that hasn't been transferred in a vehicle refrigerated for many hours from the cost or frozen," Semper said.

Furthermore, Semper said the dream is the possibility of having fish types that we wouldn't usually get in a land-locked province such as Alberta. In addition, fish grown from cells in a lab wouldn't have the concern of heavy metal toxicity, and there should be little to no exposure to things such as bacterial parasites and other health concerns that may come from wild fish.

In terms of environment and sustainability, Yadira Tejeda Saldana, research collaborations director for New Harvest, a non-profit organization in New York that supports neglected areas of research, said, "It could have less environmental impact than conventional meat products. In terms of water use, pollution and land use, there would be a lower amount of those resources used to produce culture meat."

This alone makes it more sustainable, but when you factor in population growth and need to feed more people in the future with fewer resources, this could be a necessary path. Still, it does not replace the regular meat industry but rather compliments it, filling in the gaps. Bill Aimutis, executive director at NC Food Innovations Lab in North Carolina, said it's about seeing the big picture.

"We look toward the year 2040 when we have about 10 billion mouths to feed globally, and in order for us to meet the protein demands for those 10 billion people, we're going to need protein from every source that we can produce. So, I think that is where cellular meat will come in to play, regular meat, dairy, eggs, plant-based meat and with plant-based meat you have fungal, insect, yeast, we're going to be using everything we can," said Aimutis

Of course, this all leaves one thing unspoken: customer acceptance. Anderson-Baron knows that depending on different geographical areas the industry faces challenges in accepting something as new as culture meat. "At the end of the day, humans are always apprehensive of new technologies, and this is certainly no different," said Anderson-Baron.

Nevertheless, Kyle Iseke, owner of D'Arcy's Meat Market, said he wouldn't have an issue selling it if and when the time came. "Something like that is going to depend on the whether there is demand from the customer. From a business standpoint, it comes down to if the consumer wants it and the price point is right," Iseke said.

In the meantime, the industry is growing, and with growth comes economic benefits such as employment. A year ago, Future Fields had two employees on the payroll, and now they are up to 16. Anderson-Baron said they continue to grow and expect to double in staff by next year.

"There is a huge potential for this to be a massive market and, more importantly, for us to create a massive hub for it here in Alberta," Anderson-Baron said.