"Lab-grown meat is the meat equivalent of hydroponic vegetables"

Toubia, a food engineer and biologist, set up Aleph Farms in 2017 as a joint venture between the Israeli food company Strauss and the Israel Institute of Technology. As the name suggests, the firm wants to keep one foot sturdily planted in the world of agriculture. Most farmers would be hard pushed, however, to recognize any link to their day job.

Workers at Aleph Farm do not pull on wellies, wade through muddy fields, or drive tractors. Instead, they don white coats and work in pristine laboratories that have never seen a farm animal. They create meat in 'bioreactors', closed systems that "mimic the cow’s body," rather than slaughterhouses. The beef cells, which are not genetically modified, are kept “cozy and well-fed” with a broth of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids, says Toubia. “In three to four weeks, they mature into 3D structures that comprise whole cuts of steak.”                                  

Toubia, 47, was born in France and studied for a master’s degree in Dijon, before emigrating to Israel in 1999. His master’s thesis focused on malnutrition. Toubia came to the conclusion that people are going hungry not because of a lack of resources, such as land and water, but because of a misuse of these resources, combined with unequal access to basic nutrition. A key motivation for leaving France was “a real excitement” about the opportunities Israel could offer: “in such a young and dynamic environment, the possibilities are endless.” 

What his company – and others in the market – are attempting sounds like science fiction to most of us, but Toubia is sanguine about the technology. “The Israeli Institute of Technology has been growing pieces of tissue for 20 years,” he says. “We decided to adapt the process to grow pieces of muscle, for meat.” The company produced its first cultivated beef steak in 2018.

“It is very inefficient to produce meat harvested from the carcass of a slaughtered animal,” says Toubia. One study suggests cultivated production can reduce the climate impact of eating beef by 92 percent and air pollution by 93 percent while using 95 percent less land and 78 percent less water. The reasoning goes that such potential gains would leave more space for nature and help stymie biodiversity loss. Other studies are more reserved about the possible advantages, suggesting they “may be exaggerated.”

However, lab-grown meat is not a replacement for everything, he clarifies. “This is not an alternative to grass-fed, organic meat produced in extensively-farmed systems, but for intensive agriculture. We are a replacement for factory farms." 

Aleph Farms is “working on getting regulatory approval” for cultivated meat in the UK, the EU, the US, Singapore, and the UAE. Toubia is optimistic the green light will be given. It will take “three, four, five years to become mainstream” and “by 2028, lab-grown beef should be at price parity with beefsteak,” he claims. Regulators do not move at the same pace as start-up companies, however. In the EU, for example, lab-grown meat will need approval from the European Food Safety Authority before it can appear on supermarket shelves, a process that can take three years or more.

Anybody who feels squeamish about the idea of eating meat grown in a lab should think again, insists Toubia. He compares his “hydroponic meat” to tomatoes or other fruits and vegetables grown without soil. “We use the same cells as living animals, they are just not connected to the body of a cow. There is no ethical issue to growing lychees this way. We are replacing unethical farming practices with a better option.”

Read the complete article at www.newstatesman.com.

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