County farmers invited to chew over lab-grown meat
By Simon Hacker | 29th March 2023
They may not be for consumption just yet, but this week's alarming news of Australian scientists dishing up mammoth meatballs grown from the DNA of extinct dinosaurs shows the cultured meat industry, already valued at £1.9bn, may not always be going to script.
With a wary eye on such lurid headlines in this brave new world of agribusiness, Professor Tom MacMillan told Punchline he is acutely aware of the timeliness of research he is leading at Cirencester's Royal Agricultural College (RAU).
Tom's mission? To digest the entire cultured meat debate into a meaningful understanding we can all share, so we can make informed decisions on its subsequent advice for farming – be that jump in or run away screaming.
The RAU's pioneering, government-funded research project into cultured meat's threats and opportunities got under way last year is now six months into a two-year span.
But if you're a Gloucestershire farmer you don't have to wait until 2024 for the results: Professor MacMillan is keen for you to come grab a seat and join the project.
Professor MacMillan said: "We've seen a lot of coverage on whether we will eat cultured meat and broader ethics, but not so much on what it means for the reality of farming. We have been talking to 75 farming operations and we still have space at the table for farmers in Gloucestershire who are up for participation.
"The question they face is what decisions would they make in a cultured meat market. How would they compete? We are completely open and not making any assumptions about either the risks or the opportunities."
Research is actively focused on a broad diversity of agribusiness, he says: deliberately looking at different parts of the industry, from intensive livestock through to pasture-fed and organic farms, as well as fruit growers and horticultural producers.
"There is such a diversity of farming out there. Some may be scared of high tech, while others view the skills and investment as plausible. The commitment comes down to how big a thing this may end up being."
Further considerations in the RAU's research include how cultured meat may help farming to move on from some of today's risks of zoonotic disease (disease transferred between animals to humans), the implication for income if a farm switched to producing one type of meat (with no carcass to monetize) and how a dairy operation might be hit with the loss of demand for conventional milk production.
"Our research won't be the last word; we are feeling our way and, by talking to various farming groups and gaining a more detailed picture of the opportunities and risks, farmers can make better decisions."
Globally, the cultured meat market already has its boot on: in January, Eat Just began scaling up production in Singapore for its market-ready meat grown in bioreactors from non-slaughtered animals' cells; meanwhile, in the US, government has just cleared the way for Americans to be able to eat lab-grown meat after authorities deemed it safe for human consumption. Prominent eco-campaigner George Monbiot declared the technology to grow meat in bioreactors powered by renewable energy as an opportunity that "may save humanity's bacon."
Against such advances, Professor MacMillan agrees that the UK could be viewed as lagging behind. "But we are seeing more developed products here and being circumspect may be wiser than being first."
As well as an opportunity to join this research, RAU is also offering to resource map Gloucestershire farms who participate, helping to establish a farm's specific potential for energy generation. Professor MacMillan can be emailed for more information here .
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