Our relationship with meat is complex. Many of us love how it tastes, but try not to think too much of how it reaches our plate.
As the population grows, more people are eating meat today than yesterday. This increase in demand, however, comes at a great cost to our planet. The livestock industry has been pinned by many as an “unnecessary evil,” with mass cattle production believed to contribute to the growing global carbon footprint.
Cultured meat (or “clean meat”) has emerged as an industry aimed at disrupting conventional ways of producing animal products with the goal of reducing the number of animals killed for food as well as creating a more sustainable and ethical global food system.
We have now seen the global mushrooming of food innovation companies on a mission to produce real meat without needing to raise and kill animals.
The first company of its kind in Africa, Mzansi Meats Co, runs its base of operation from Cape Town and is on the fast track to bring lab-grown wares to the continent.
Brett Thompson is the co-founder of Mzansi Meats Co and believes that cultured meat could be a game changer in the global food industry.
He says cultured meat could be a possible solution to the growing population’s needs and simultaneously reduce the carbon footprint of cattle production.
Thompson says, “There is an argument that could be made that this meat is healthier than your conventional meat.
“We were looking at ways to reduce suffering and getting animals out of intensified food systems. We think cell-ag or cultivated meat is a possible solution for that. Other people would suggest that maybe it is better for the environment. You’re going to be using less inputs, less resources and less land, which is a very topical conversation in our country.”
Eastern Cape-based beef producer Dr Pieter Prinsloo says that cattle farmers are already working tirelessly to rectify their past mistakes.
Meat is ingrained in our identity and a feasible option could be to eat less meat, he argues. Prinsloo tells Food For Mzansi, “Eat less beef, but find proper beef.
“You can find beef with a lesser carbon footprint because our cattle are free-roaming. We are in the process of looking at a measuring tool where we can actually determine exactly what the carbon footprint is.”
Prinsloo makes a distinction between free-roaming and intensively farmed cattle.
“It is true that livestock, especially in the factory farming setup, has got a huge carbon footprint, even a water footprint. There are figures of 15 000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of beef going around, which is totally untrue.”
He says this figure includes the water used to produce feed for animals kept in an enclosed space. Allowing cattle to roam and graze freely eliminates that environmental cost.
“We changed the pathway of how we started doing things about five to seven years ago because we started realising we just cannot fool the consumer. We are trying to feed the world yes, but our systems were not conducive.”
From petri dish to your plate
Cultured meat is meat that is grown from animal cells rather than cut from an animal that was raised to be slaughtered. Thompson emphasises that it is “real meat”, simply without the need to raise and slaughter animals.
He also tells Food For Mzansi, “We are working on doing a beef burger, this would be beef made from cells where the animal isn’t killed. We grow the cells outside of the animal.”
Ultimately, the company is looking to develop other products such as chicken, lamb, pork and maybe even fish.”
However, lab-grown meat is still extremely expensive. But not worry, Thompson says, “Our goal is to produce accessible meat for everybody in Africa. Our job is to make it available and accessibly priced.”
Thompson adds, “In the beginning it will be more expensive. It is a new technology, it’s a new food source, in the beginning the economics of scale aren’t going to be there compared to how we raise chickens.
“We have done some work with a partner organisation that has looked at some research and it seems to be encouraging to say that over half of South Africans surveyed have said that they would eat cultured meat once it becomes widely available. “
But will the average South African bite? It seems that chefs are actually looking forward to weaving the lab-grown meat into their menus.
Johannesburg chef and owner of Molly’s 3RD, Tefo Mokgoro doesn’t have to think too long about the question.
“Honestly yes. I would look at it as a division of two menus. You would have your cultured meat and you have your organic meat. I would want to serve cultured meat.”