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Complimentary or threatening? Farmers offer mixed bag of perspectives on cultured meat

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Last week, Food Ingredients First reported on UK farmers’ response to the upsurge in cultivated meat innovations, based on a study led by the Royal Agricultural University (RAU), UK. Now speaking with Dr. John Dooley, research manager at RAU and project manager for Cultured Meat & Farmers, to talks us through the emergent sector’s anticipated impact on the farming industry and how the researchers plan to move ahead with the project.

The Cultured Meat & Farmers project comprises leading experts in cultured meat and farmer-centered innovation aiming to support policymakers and investors in understanding the technology’s multiple impacts on farming and rural communities.

The findings from the project’s first phase — investigating farmers’ attitudes to the technology — are published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. The surveyed farmers’ insights revealed concerns over the lack of information about the technology, with some viewing cell-based meat not as a competition but as a “premium” for pasture-reared meat pointing to opportunities for the farming sector.

“If we want to tackle climate change, we will need to change the way we eat. It is almost certain this will involve eating less meat overall and one of the solutions to this may be cultured meat,” Dr. Dooley tells Food Ingredients First.

“This is interesting to the food industry and investors because of cultured meat’s potential to have the same taste and texture as conventional meat and appeal to committed carnivores. But if it were to replace traditionally reared meat, the impact on farmers could be huge.”

He further points out that in all the research into cultured meat, its impact on farming has yet to be studied. “This is what we wanted to address in this study: firstly, to ask what farmers’ attitudes to cultured meat are and secondly, how it might impact UK farming if it became part of our diets.”

Beyond business concerns

The alternative meat industry is steadily gathering pace worldwide, with organisations calling for more financial backing so the sector can grow and reach its potential. Cell-based protein was also among new sustainable food technologies at the center of roundtable talks at last year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai.

The sector is witnessing a productivity boost driven by automation advancements as well. Biotech firm The Cultivated B’s recent cost-effective automating software allows easier operation of bioreactors for cell-based meat formulation.

Amid such large-scale developments, Dr. Dooley expected the farmers to see cultured meat as competition and be concerned about the impact on their own businesses.

“But their concerns were far wider than how it would affect them personally,” he reveals. “Many spoke about how it might impact public health, the risks of shifting the balance of power in the food and even the impacts on rural life.”

He also flags some less evident and cross-sector impacts, which he says he would not have known about without speaking directly to farmers.

“For example, what would happen to the wool and soap industry and how it would affect livestock carcass balance, if cultured meat replaced less valuable cuts of meat and consumers only wanted to buy prime cuts of ‘real’ meat.”

“There are still lots of unanswered questions,” he underscores.

A possible amalgamation?

When asked whether the balance of animal and cell-based meat could make things easier for farmers, Dr. Dooley affirmed it depends on how technology advances.

“There are so many things we still don’t know. For example, a farmer on our project team has started his own cultured meat business. If the intellectual property was generally available, maybe farmers could produce cultured meat on their farms, a little like having a craft ale brewery.”

The project further aims to explore such scenarios in the next phase. “If the industry does get the green light, how might it support or complement farming rather than threaten it?” he questions.

Future of cultured meat

Cultivated meat has recently been gaining approval for tastings and sales worldwide, expanding its consumer reach continuously, a trend that Dr. Dooley says needs consideration in the future.

“There are decisions being taken across the globe about the future of cultured meat. The FDA in the US has passed it for human consumption, Italy has banned it and it is already on sale in Singapore.”

“A decision will be made in the UK too, possibly in the near future. And when it is, it is important to consider the effect it will have on farming. In general, I think the food industry can learn a lot from listening to the people who are producing our food,” he concludes.

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