FOOD SECURITY

Farmers fume as scientists beef up efforts to put 'cultured meat' on the menu

A lab-grown steak made by the Israeli company Aleph Farms, in Jaffa, Israel.
A lab-grown steak made by the Israeli company Aleph Farms, in Jaffa, Israel. AP - Tsafrir Abayov

Advocates of “cultured meat” are widening their campaign to convince French people that animal products that come from laboratories – instead of slaughterhouses – are the way of the future.

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Also known as “cell-based”, “cultivated” or “synthetic” meat, cultured meat is produced by harvesting the cells of living animals. This means a single cow could provide millions of steaks – without visiting an abattoir.

Debate in France over cultured meat has gathered pace since lawmakers last month banned its sale to school canteens in an amendment to the government’s climate and resilience bill.

The move drew immediate condemnation from cultured meat proponents, who say it’s hypocritical for an environment law to reject technology that has the potential to solve both the climate and food crises.

Leading the charge is food science specialist Nathalie Rolland, co-founder of Cellular Agriculture France – a non-profit organisation which aims to inform people about the benefits of producing animal products from cells.

“Most people have no idea what this is … and presenting it with a negative name like ‘lab meat’ will ensure that consumers are turned off,” Rolland tells RFI. 

“It’s already very difficult to have a peaceful discussion about this topic in France.”

Booming sector

Cellular agriculture has made strides in recent years, with cultured beef and chicken appearing on menus in Singapore and Israel. 

All over the world, record-breaking investments are being made in companies working to put cultured rabbit, bison, kangaroo and even foie gras onto plates.

Despite being promoted as "cruelty-free" and "clean", cultured meat still faces an image problem amid criticism that meat grown in labs is artificial and unnatural.

When Singapore made headlines in December by becoming the first country to approve cell-based proteins, French Agricultural Minister Julien Denormandie took to Twitter to make his opposition clear. 

“Is this what we want for our children, as a society? Me, no! I will clearly state it: meat comes from the living, not from laboratories,” he said.

Angry farmers 

With more than 19 million cattle, France is Europe's leading beef producer. Its cherished farming sector devotes 13 million hectares of land – the size of England – to raising livestock.

The extent to which eating meat has remained entrenched in French cultural identity was again emphasised in February – during protests against a decision to serve vegetarian school lunches in Lyon.

Farmers drove their tractors through the streets of the gastronomic capital, accusing the mayor of harming children.

Rolland says France’s powerful farming lobby is largely to blame for the reluctance of political decision-makers to get on board with the rapidly expanding cultured meat sector.

“They’re trying to defend their interests – but there’s a gap between what is happening on the political level and what people really think,” she adds.

Generation gap  

Some consumer surveys in Europe point to a growing acceptance of cultured meat – especially among younger people. 

“We know that young people are more sensitive to the protection of our planet, to animal welfare, and they’re more open to alternatives,” Rolland says.

In one study carried out last year, 44 percent of French respondents said they would be willing to try cultured meat.

They could well get the chance, with food scientists predicting cultured meat may make its way onto European supermarket shelves within the next three to five years.

That's pending regulatory approval, of course.

A nugget made from lab-grown chicken meat at a restaurant in Singapore
A nugget made from lab-grown chicken meat at a restaurant in Singapore Handout Eat Just/AFP

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