April 15, 2021

I used to pride myself on being that kid who had the opportunity to witness a slew of technological advancements from the late 80s to the 90s. I remember fumbling around with floppy disks, untangling my favourite Lion King ‘audio-book’ cassette tape and submitting my final year project for my engineering degree via CAD/CAM designs. The tech revolution has been ongoing at breakneck speed; who would have guessed that punch cards and mixed tapes are now a thing of the past? As millennials, we roll with it, eventually becoming digital natives.

The same can be said about our dietary habits, although it has taken a slight detour towards plant-based meat. An appealing innovation that shapeshifts ‘meat’ made from plants into beloved nuggets, sausages, burger patties and more. With more and more companies pushing to find sustainable alternatives, it is only a matter of time before cultured meat, laboratory-grown meat would find its way into our diet. Producing in-vitro meat usually falls in no man’s land between the disparities of biomedical research and agriculture, but the situation is changing.

When I spoke to Daan Luining, the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Meatable, he revealed that climate change was the real firestarter. Planning to take cell-based meat technology out of its science fiction realm by 2023, the Dutch start-up coins cell-based meat as ‘the new natural’. “We have to start off by addressing the fact that the way we’re producing food now is anything but natural,” Luining said. “Keeping livestock in close confinement and feeding them unnatural soybeans is not a normal way to go about it.” The implications are grim as well. Increasing production to meet the growing demands of meat that have been escalating inexorably since the start of globalisation means deforestation, dismal animal welfare and unbelievable strains on just about every measure of planetary health. Sure, we could fall back on our traditional vegetarian diets, but try convincing the mass population who feel ‘entitled’ to their carnivorous fix. “Meatable allows us to access the same nutrient source without harming or involving animals,” Luining said. “We’re hoping to supplement the field and not disrupt it with our product, and in doing so, give consumers a better alternative, a more environmentally friendly option to enjoy their meat.”

Is the prospect of having a piece of sirloin engineered from pluripotent cells appealing? If the technology pans out and delivers as expected, scepticism and unfounded controversies are the only hurdles left from making cultured meat commonplace. Like it or not, it’s inevitable that, in time, we have to reconfigure our notions of “food”. For a traditionalist and meat-worshipper like me, the idea of meat without a tangible source in sight is perceived as unpalatable, but I’m trying to keep an open mind. 

Change or perish. You might think I’m being a little dramatic. Well, similar to how we have grown up in a time of rapid technological changes sparking off from the launch of the first GPS satellite in 1989 giving rise to the World Wide Web (the dial-up modem connection sound), we need to instil an open mentality and a learning culture in the next generation. A generation of curious minds that are comfortable with continuous change.

So, a perfectly grilled, medium-rare steak grown from cells for dinner? I say, why not?