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Cultivating Cell-Based Meat in South Africa

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

Author: Jayson Van Der Walt

Our view of meat has undergone a reconceptualisation in recent years. New technologies for producing meat are leading us to challenge the notion that meat production must involve animal farming as a prerequisite. In this post, we’ll explore opportunities in the exciting field of clean meat, which is based on the concept of deconstructing and reconstructing meat at the cellular and molecular level.

Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

Reimagining meat: an important challenge for the current generation

The global demand for meat is expected to increase by more than 70% in just the next 30 years. This prediction is based on a combination of both population growth and an increased demand for meat, most prevalent in developing countries with a newly burgeoning middle class, where meat consumption has historically been relatively low. As this demand increases, it is clear that the significant strain on resources, environmental degradation, climate change implications and general health risks posed by archaic and often cruel industrialised animal agriculture methods are growing reasons for concern.

Furthermore, there is an imminent food security crisis that cannot be ignored. There is simply not enough arable land – even if all the world’s remaining forests were cleared – for us to sustainably continue producing meat in accordance with current methods. Incremental efficiency improvements are not enough to get us past the underlying thermodynamic hurdle of channelling calories through a living, breathing, metabolising farm animal. One would be hard-pressed to come up with a more inefficient system for creating food.

Thankfully, a trailblazing collection of international startups, scientists, researchers and mission-driven financial supporters are attempting to spur on a movement that is set on making meat without killing animals. Their approach is to grow “cultured meat” (also known as “clean meat” or “cell-based” meat) which is actual animal meat produced by cultivating painlessly harvested animal cells as opposed to having to slaughter the whole animal.

Food is really a nutritious biological happenstance, and meat is no exception

There is no debating that we as humans have deep cultural associations with food and one might say that our food customs are our most direct connection to the world of the past and to our friends and family. It’s a part of history that you can touch, smell and above all taste. The myriad rituals around breakfast, lunch and dinner are perhaps something we take for granted, as if they have always existed the way they are now, but unpack the diverse stories of our three main meals, depending on where you are in the world, and you are bound to discover gastronomic revolutions, technological innovations and diet-related health nightmares. To a biochemist, however, there is something striking about the simplicity of the notion of these daily meals too.

At its core, though, food is comprised of a set of biochemical molecules that, when combined in just the right way, can provide the complex sensory experience we associate with a particular food or meal.

Thus, the task of rethinking meat at a fundamental level entails viewing its creation as a matter of biological happenstance. Meat isn’t an inflexible, optimised food source as much as a series of events that results in animal tissue of certain species appealing to our taste buds, when prepared and seasoned in a particular way. When we understand this, we can break down meat’s quintessence down to distinct molecular characteristics (both chemical and structural) that can be recreated with new source materials.

So, how is Cultured Meat grown?

At a high level, technicians painlessly take a small amount of tissue from a donor animal usually via a small biopsy under anaesthetic, then filter it and isolate cells that they can grow. This is done by ensuring the correct temperature, pH levels and oxygen as well as feeding them salts, sugars and proteins essentially “tricking” the cells into thinking that they're still inside the animal’s body. The cells naturally replicate as they would inside the body growing to a point where they are eventually seeded onto a natural, edible 3D scaffolding material where the cells mature into the desired final cell types (muscle, fat and, if required connective tissue).

Biochemistry processes perfected during years of animal cell culture research for basic biological and biomedical applications are used to determine the ideal nutrient composition of the “feed” that the cells need to grow. Cells, like you and I, require all essential amino acids as well as certain key growth factors and fatty acids to develop properly and healthily.

Credence Institute as a catalyst for embracing cellular agriculture locally

While the idea of growing meat from cells is not new, there seems to be a global consensus that we finally have the right knowledge, tools and institutional interest to begin to pursue clean meat as a food and industrial animal agriculture disruptor in a serious way. This is a genuinely pivotal moment for our food system, from many angles, and the fundamental principles of biochemistry underlie this paradigm shift.

Credence Institute recognises that the pressing challenge of building a more sustainable, healthier and more humane food system, whilst protecting the interests of animals, is in part solvable by leveraging biotechnology. To this end, we are dedicated to working with startups, academics, industry, and both public and private funders to accelerate the development and commercialisation of cultured meat in Africa.

Once cell-based meat achieves sufficient market penetration to tap into emerging opportunities for optimising raw materials and making production more efficient, the industry will enter a bright new era of accessibility and affordability that will benefit both consumers and producers. We’re excited to be at the forefront of this food and animal welfare revolution and hope that you will support us as the paradigm starts to shift.

#cleanmeat #culturedmeat #southafrica #biotechnology #technology

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