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Cultured meat: Good or bad, promise or peril?

Across America, people both in and out of agriculture are hearing more about cell-based meat, aka "clean meat" and "fake meat," among other terms. Whether cell-based meat is a good thing or a bad thing — whether it holds promise or peril — depends on who you ask.

To Vítor Espírito Santo, associate director of cellular agriculture for JUST, a San Francisco-based food company that expects to begin selling lab-grown chicken within a year, cell-based meat involves "changing the food system" to benefit consumers and the environment.

To Gerald Stokka, North Dakota State University Extension veterinarian and livestock stewardship specialist, cell-based meat unfairly denigrates beef cattle and threatens rural economies tied to traditionally raised beef.

To Alison Van Eenennaam, University of California-Davis Extension specialist in animal biotechnology and genomics, proponents of cell-based meat are "overhyping the environmental benefits" and providing an incomplete, misleading case for it.

And to Ginger Hultin, a registered dietitian and Seattle-based spokesperson for the

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the world's largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, cell-based meat offers promise — but also requires more research and data.

Despite the disagreements, there's consensus that cell-based meat still faces major challenges, particularly marketing and gearing up for large-scale production. Even proponents say cell-based meat won't be widely available for at least five years.

Supporters say

A coming JUST product -- cell-based chicken nuggets.Advocates of cultured meat say it's beneficial and even necessary. Their arguments typically involve some combination of human health, the global environment and animal welfare.

Kristopher Gasteratos, founder and president of the Cellular Agriculture Society, referred questions about cellular ag to his organization's website, which identifies "three sets of concern" involving "the world's large supply of farmed animals."

According to the web site, the three are:

People: "People often get sick from animal products that are contaminated like meat and the growing population in the coming decades will require a higher demand for animal products than we can currently produce."

Animals: "Animals live in crowded, unnatural conditions which can be harmful for them, and they need to be killed in large quantities to supply the world with animal products."

World: "The world does not have enough environmental resources to produce for all of the farm animals; there isn't enough food, water, and land to provide to them sustainably."

'Nothing fake about it'

JUST, the San Francisco-based food company that hopes to start selling cell-based meat within a year, was launched eight years ago. Its goal, then and now, is "changing the food system using more sustainable ingredients and approaches to provide nutritious and safe products to consumers, Santo said.

He referred to the product as "cultured meat," adding that "lab-grown meat is not a term we're particularly fond of."

And, "I don't agree at all with fake meat," a term often used by critics of it, Santo said. "It really is animal protein. There's definitely nothing fake about it. Just the process is different."

Cultured meat and conventional meat come from the same source and have the same "starting materials" and are provided the same nutrients, but in different form — in liquid solutions instead of the feed used for conventional meat, Santo said.

"I really believe consumers can feel confident about trying this. It's a lot more similar (to conventional meat) than they might expect," he said.

JUST is well aware that many consumers have questions about cultured meat, Santo said.

"We've been addressing marketing for two years. A lot of education needs to be done; it's not something that happens overnight," he said.

Some critics and skeptics of cultured meat suggest a great deal of energy might be required to produce it on a large scale. Santo, asked about that, said his company is familiar with those concerns and is investigating ways to deal with them, including more use of renewable energy.

JUST still faces "some challenges in technology, especially in scaling up (production)," he said. But, "We know the direction we need to go."

The company hopes to begin with limited sales of cultured chicken products to high-end restaurants in Asia; it's waiting on regulatory approval to do so, Santo said.

Over time, JUST intends to scale up production, expand its product line and sell in America, too, he said.

It's too early to talk about what consumers might pay for cell-based meat, Santo said.

Skeptic: Data needed

Cattle are "upcyclers," Gerald Stokka of NDSU says.Skeptics say much more data is needed to support the argument that cell-based meat on a large scale would provide major environmental benefits.

"Show me the data. What I don't like at the moment is people who are supporting it (cell-based meat) just look at one side of the picture without looking at the trade-offs," said Van Eenennaam, the University of California-Davis scientist

"It (producing cell-based meat) does require inputs. It's not a free lunch," she said.

Because cell-based meat isn't produced now on a large scale, nobody knows how energy would be required to do so, she said, noting that grass eaten by cattle on the range grows with the help of free solar energy.

And it's a mistake to look at "cows only as hamburger. Dairy cattle in particular are so productive. They produce milk, and then go to become hamburger. If you're only looking at the hamburger component, you're ignoring a lot," she said.

Cows also provide what's known as ecosystem services — controlling invasive weeds in pastures, for example — that benefit the people and the environment, Van Eenennaam said.

She thinks cell-based meat might eventually become "a niche market" in the United States but won't ever be a major player in global meat production.

'Upcyclers' at work

NDSU's Stokka, a rancher himself who once served as a rural vet, said he's frustrated and disappointed with what he sees as unfair attacks on cattle.

"I never thought I'd need to be defending the cow. The lowly cow is under assault. She's become the scourge of the earth. She's polluting our environment so bad. On its face, it's kind of a ridiculous statement. But that's the issue we're dealing with," Stokka said.

A United Nations report found that livestock serve a beneficial role in the global environment, serving as an "upcycler," Stokka said.

A key line from the report:

"Livestock, especially ruminants like beef cattle, play a key role in a sustainable food system. They allow us to produce food on marginal lands that are unsuitable for cultivated agriculture. Cattle act as "upcyclers" in our food system — they upgrade plants into high quality protein for people."

The report also found that 86 percent of what livestock eat globally — mostly grass on land unsuited for crops — is inedible for humans.

The cattle industry doesn't always get the credit it should for becoming more efficient, producing more beef with the use of fewer inputs, Stokka said.

The importance of livestock's economic benefit in rural communities shouldn't be overlooked, either, Stokka said.

"What happens if the beef cow is removed from rural economic systems because we can grow this lab-cultured protein? I don't know how that could be a good thing," he said.

Nutritionists say

Many Americans are increasingly concerned with the quality of the food they eat, so nutritionists — who influence food choices — potentially could play a major role in the extent to which cell-based meat is accepted by consumers.

Asked for its evaluation of cell-based meat, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which has its headquarters in Chicago, said it hasn't taken a stance. The organization also emailed its written position on vegetarian diets and referred questions to Hultin said.

Hultin said cell-based meat is an important subject that holds both challenges and potential benefits, especially in helping to feed the world's fast-growing population.

But more data and research is needed to fully assess cell-based meat — and consumers ultimately will decide whether to support it, Hultin said.

A short primer:

Cell-based meat is a complicated and controversial topic that doesn't lend itself to simple or clear-cut conclusions, especially since the technology is still evolving. But these key points provide a useful overview:

• The process takes cells from animals, and grows the cells using liquid solutions in controlled conditions in a laboratory. Advocates say a brewery is a better comparison than a lab.

• Worldwide meat consumption will increase 73 percent by 2050, according to a 2011 United Nations report.

• In 2013, a Dutch researcher debuted the first "clean meat" — hamburger made of cells of a cow's shoulder that required two years, hundreds of petri dishes and $325,000 to make.

• The combination of rising meat consumption and the Dutch research has encouraged a number of start-up "clean meat" companies, with Bill Gates and Richard Branson among the investors. And several major food companies, including Cargill and Tyson Foods, are involved, as well.

• Cell-based meat companies operate around the world, but California is a hotspot for them.

• The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration continue to hash out their respective roles in regulating cell-based meat.

• U.S. ag groups have stepped up their efforts, both at the state and national level, for package labeling that clearly distinguishes between cell-based meat and conventional meat.

• By all accounts, cell-based meat still faces major challenges, including consumer acceptance and ramping up to large-scale production that potentially could make cultured meat affordable to middle-class consumers. But proponents say they're confident their product will be available on a limited scale and in small markets within the next few years, and on a large scale and globally after 2025.

What's in a name?

There's an old saying, "Control the language, control the debate." The struggle is clearly in play as Americans try to reach consensus of what to call meat raised from animal cells, rather than in the traditional method. Here are commonly used terms

Clean meat: A term favored by some proponents of cell-based meat because it suggests health and environmental benefits — and detested by opponents because it also implies that conventional raised beef is somehow dirty or unclean.

Fake meat: A term favored by many opponents of cell-based meat for obvious reasons — and frowned on by proponents for the same reasons.

Lab-grown meat: An often-used term disliked by many supporters of the technology who worry that some consumers will look unfavorably on food produced in a lab.

Cultured meat: A widely used compromise term that indicates the meat was produced through cell cultures.

Cell-based meat: An increasingly common term that could find its way into general usage as a compromise.

Cellular agriculture: Obtaining ag products from animal cells rather than entire animals. Cell-based meat is one of of these ag products.

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