Lab-grown chicken developed by UPSIDE foods is the latest cell-cultured meat to be launched to market in the US.
More and more start-ups are seeking approval, including in Australia.
The sector is rich with investors, even promising proteins from thin air (which genuinely sounds hopeful and is positioned as natural and non-GMO).
UPSIDE’s lab-grown chicken is to be served in high-end restaurants, to gain cache and a touch of class from the image of celebrity chefs and fine dining. It’s a strategy that has worked before.
In 2018 the strategy was used for the Impossible Burger which gained international PR from Air New Zealand’s endorsement of its innovative lab-grown blood.
It was only offered to business class passengers and on selected flights and The Impossible Burger benefited from its association with Brand New Zealand as natural, clean, green and progressive.
Air New Zealand was criticised for failing to support New Zealand producers in it’s rush to look innovative and climate-aware with fake meat. Kiwi manufacturers of plant based foods had missed out on a chance to showcase their natural, GE-free vegetarian products. Kiwi producers of natural, grass-fed, GE- free lamb and beef, also argued they had missed out on showcasing their point of difference to premium customers.
Soon after, the Impossible Burger was featured as a lesson for New Zealand in the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Enterprise (MBIE) review of risks and opportunities for novel proteins and food innovation.
The conclusion by some in the food industry is that we have a problem and must meet the challenge of synthetic food by doing the same. The whole focus seems to lead to investing in innovative biotechnology for fake meat and milk alternatives.
But is it correct to argue that the only solution to the trend for plant-based, ethical and sustainable diets is biotechnology and synthetic food products?
It is clear today that in contrast to more technologising of food, the opportunity for New Zealand farmers and producers is to leverage the assets of Brand New Zealand by keeping it natural.
Some food exporters have gone further to ensure lab-grown meat doesnt harm people, farmers or the environment. In March of 2023, the Italian government supported a bill that bans lab-grown “foods”. There are calls for US state governments do the same.
Things have changed.
Tension is growing between nature-friendly and technology-friendly responses to multiple challenges. There is panic that those industries controlling the Market are blocking the change people want to see.
There is more urgent need for authentic action on climate change. The delaying tactics and promise of future technology to fix things are being seen to be overly optimistic or hollow.
The evidence is growing that we have market failure. The transition to farming sustainably, with organic and agro-ecological science needs to be subsidised. The alternative future is that industrial and intensive agriculture continue to dominate the scene.
The likelihood is the future holds both.
Futurist Melissa Clark-Reynolds monitors trends and signals and says that contradictory trends will exist in parallel. In a way they already do she says, ‘the future is already here’ but just not equally distributed.
One problem is the commercial drivers are taking New Zealand to the ‘technology’ option. If we want to preserve opportunities for the future we need to focus on science and research for the ‘nature’ option too.
Saying No to a farm-free future
Today, there is a greater threat to farmers than the impact of the consumer move away from animal products.
That threat is defined by a mindset that considers the answer to the question ‘how to meet demand for sustainable, ethical food’, is synthetic milk and lab-grown meat.
The debate is happening internationally. UK writer George Monbiot has a long history of environmentalism but sees the end of farming as necessary to save Nature.
Regulation of Lab-Grown Meat.
Today, it is unlikely Air New Zealand will want to promote the lab-grown chicken in business or economy.
The downsides of lab-grown meat are better understood. It looks significantly less-sustainable than hoped.
There is reliance on pharmaceutical-grade inputs, including bovine fetal growth medium that add to the yuk factor and risks of food safety.
One of the scientific discoveries about our relationship with food is the importance of the gut biome to human health. There are questions about the effect that GE food and highly processed lab-grown products will have.
There is no way of telling as far as the new lab-grown chicken is concerned as the research has never been done. Most likely the only people to know if there is any discernible effect would be the people eating the product in fine restaurants, or at the Cop 27 meeting where it was once served to delegates.
The US Food & Drug (FDA) already signed off on the product last November. It had reviewed the application which outlined the lab process and strict measures to self-regulate the safety of the product. These include screening against viral contamination, creation of prion-like disease, and other risks to ensure the product was similar in specification to chicken meat.
The FDA had no more questions. In fact the the FDA and manufacturer seem to agree that the lab-grown meat is so much like real chicken that it needs no further consideration for regulation. Its launch to market is based on the regulatory concept that it is ‘substantially equivalent’ to real chicken. Humans have been eating chicken for years, so lab-grown chicken is much the same and can be “Generally Regarded as Safe”.
This failure in the US system for proper regulation of lab-grown food and Gene Edited food has relevance for other countries. There is international industry pressure to relax regulation and do the same or risk ‘being left behind’. Food Standards Australia NZ (FSANZ) has approved scores of imported GE food products using substantial equivalence as the starting point for evaluation, which is supported by industry. Consumer and independent scientific concerns about this are rejected.
It’s the same issue in the debate about testing and labelling of Gene Edited food from CRISPR. Independent scientists, and the European Union Ministers of Environment support the need for the use of GE processes to trigger close scrutiny of what has been produced.
Process-based regulation allows for whole-genome sequencing and ‘omics‘ to evaluate safety.
The argument from industry against this is that it is unfair on Gene Editing which is proven safe and therefore only the end product need be considered. And if the end product can be assumed safe because it is substantially equivalent to conventional food, other safety issues risk being ignored.
In this version of the future of food, synthetic lab-grown chicken and Gene Edited products would escape proper regulation.
The concern is that novel foods will be assumed to be much the same as the food we have been eating safely for hundreds of years. No questions asked.
Jon Carapiet: Born in Ghana and educated at Cambridge and Auckland Universities, Jon is a consumer researcher and advocate, photographer and writer. Jon started talking about valuing and protecting Brand New Zealand in the early 2000’s and is spokesman for GE-Free NZ (in food and environment). Twitter jon@brandnewzealand