Ever since the UN released its 2006 Livestock's Long Shadow report on the impact animal agriculture has on climate change, the environmental case for ditching meat and going vegan has been gaining traction. One of the alternatives being cooked up to help people do that is synthetic meat, but so far none of the options has been scaled up to become mass-market-friendly. And this is the paradigm shift that SuperMeat is aiming at promoting as it raises funds to get its cruelty-free, animal-friendly cultured chicken meat out in the market.
SuperMeat is an Israeli start-up whose goal is to mass manufacture cultured meat grown in a lab from chicken cells (unlike Beyond Meat, which is plant-based chicken). Basically, it is developing a machine to grow its cultured chicken. The idea is to create what it calls a "distributive manufacturing of cultured meat," which translates into a device that can be used in stores, restaurants, and even homes.
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It is the brainchild of biomedical engineer and professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Yaakov Nahmias, co-founder of the start-up. Nahmias is known for his work at the helm of MicroLIVER technologies and his cutting-edge work in liver tissue engineering and nanotechnology therapies for diabetes.
The cultured meat that SuperMeat proposes is produced from chicken cells that are grown to huge numbers from a single biopsy, taken without hurting the animal. Quite likely, this may not sit well with vegans, but meat-eaters are lab meat's real target.
The cells from the biopsy are broken down into separate cells that proliferate in culture. Then, using tissue-engineering techniques refined from principles of regenerative medicine, they are incubated in a specially designed bioreactor that mimics the natural body of the animal where they grow organically into full-size tissue.
The cells are then enriched with nutrients that help them thrive, divide and develop a chunk of animal meat, ready to be cooked as a meal.
This approach is what allows SuperMeat to design small scale meat-producing devices. It also makes it possible to enhance the nutritional value of the meat, making it richer in various nutrients, such as protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, and others.
Besides the well-documented cruelty involved in animal agriculture, livestock is known to cause significant environmental problems. It accounts for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. It is also the source of 37 percent of methane gas emissions. In leading beef-producing countries like Brazil, it is the main cause of deforestation, as ranchers replace the Amazon forest with pasture, wreaking havoc with rivers and soil.
Water is also a massive issue. According to Food Tank, it takes 1,799 gallons (6,810 l) of water to produce one pound (0.45 kg) of beef while one pound of pork takes 576 gallons (2,180 l). Plants are much less thirsty; one pound of soybeans require 216 gallons (818 l), while corn takes 108 gallons (409 l). Animal agriculture in general consumes 34-76 trillion gallons (129-288 l) of water of every year, say the producers of Cowspiracy, a documentary film on the environmental impact of animal food production.
SuperMeat says its solution will help reduce those figures. It needs 99 percent less land to make its cultured meat and says it can promote a reduction of 96 percent in greenhouse gases and water use from traditional meat-production methods.
Besides, SuperMeat says its product is cleaner and safer for consumption because it is grown under strictly supervised conditions, decreasing the risk of bacterial contamination. It would also be free of the growth hormones given to cattle in feeding lots.
Finally, the SuperMeat team also argues that it could benefit people in countries suffering from food scarcity. The company claims the product will be affordable, as it avoids all the costs involved in the raising and feeding of billions of animals.
To make SuperMeat a reality, the company has launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign featuring the witty video embedded below. At the time of writing this article, the campaign still had two months to go but had already surpassed its fundraising goal of US$100,000 by 19 percent. The next goal is US$500,000 to create a meat machine prototype.
SuperMeat expects its product will cost US$5 per kilo (2.2 lb), but it is too early to say whether it will be sold by weight or package, it tells Gizmag.
Funding packages start at $20 for a SuperMeat voucher; $50 will get the voucher and a pin; $100 a voucher and T-shirt; and those willing to fork out $5,000 will get $1,000 in vouchers plus their name on the package label. Delivery is estimated for December 2016 if all goes according to plan. Once the product hits the market, pledgers will be able to use their vouchers at retail outlets, which will be found across the globe according to demand.