Meat the Future

‘I volunteer myself to try this cultured meat at my own risk’

The Netherlands leads in cheese, clogs, and cultured meat. This sustainable and animal-friendly form of meat has largely been developed in our country. In 1997, Willem van Eelen obtained the first patent on the technique, whereby animal cells are grown into muscle tissue without any animals needing to be slaughtered

At the beginning of this century, the Dutch government invested substantial money into the scientific research being carried out at the universities of Utrecht, Amsterdam, and Eindhoven. In 2013, professor Mark Post of Maastricht University presented the first in vitro burger to the world. From 2011 onwards, I myself researched the possible impact of such technology at the Eindhoven University of Technology, and in 2014 we at Next Nature Network published the first In Vitro Meat Cookbook to stimulate the societal discussion of the future of meat.

According to the United Nations, excessive meat consumption constitutes one of the largest environmental problems of our time. Although it’s well-known that global warming is a problem, far fewer people know that meat production is responsible for a significant proportion of the harmful greenhouse gases causing it. If we want to realize the goals of the Paris Agreement, we have to somehow shrink the numbers of our livestock in the coming years, according to a recent report of the Dutch Council for the Environment and Infrastructure. Since not everyone is prepared to immediately turn vegetarian, and since meat consumption in developing economies such as India and China rises with prosperity, we must explore all possible alternatives.

Although many people still experience in vitro meat as artificial and unnatural, the manufacturing process is comparable to beer-brewing or cheese-making; both depend on the feeding of cell cultures. The most important difference is that in vitro meat is new, and therefore alien and unusual. Maybe in 2050 it will be perfectly normal to grow a piece of meat in your own kitchen. For the time being, is it “Trust what you know?” Not quite. Research into public willingness to consume in vitro meat reveals that between 40 and 70% of the population are open to trying it or even to making the switch.

Because the first in vitro burger cost €250,000 in 2013, this more sustainable and animal-friendly form of meat production can seem like a distant dream. But make no mistake. The first flat-screen televisions were also affordable only to millionaires. Today, almost everyone has one hanging in their bedroom.

Meat is a billion-dollar industry around the world. The business that succeeds in serving a portion of this market with in vitro meat will not only contribute to a more sustainable world; there is also the potential to earn a great deal of money. International investors haven’t failed to notice this. At this very moment, various businesses around the world are busy bringing in vitro meat to the market.

One of those businesses is the American JUST, which claims to have made cultured nuggets, chorizo meat and even foie gras from animal cells. The CEO of this business, Josh Tetrick, wants to bring his product to market in 2018. Because he recognizes our country’s history with cultured meat, Tetrick recently hosted the first public tasting of in vitro meat at a Dutch restaurant, as well as at the NEMO Science Museum, the idea being to present his product to the world from its point of origin.

As an in vitro meat explorer since the beginning, I was invited to the dinner and thrilled to have the chance to try the product. But it never got that far. On the authority of the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, an inspector from the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) came to seal up the packets of cultured meat. Because this product hasn’t yet been approved by the European “Novel Food” legislation, we aren’t allowed to consume it. In reaction to this, the presentation is likely to take place in Asia instead.

Give me a break. In the Netherlands, we have played a leading role in this sustainable innovation since day one. The government has invested money in the research. Now that a number of important technical and societal hurdles surrounding the manufacturing process and consumer acceptance have been overcome, that same government is going to raise a legal barrier by forbidding the presentation of the product in the Netherlands.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that cultured meat products must be thoroughly researched and tested before we can offer them to consumers in the supermarket. Is in vitro meat safe? Is it healthy? We all want to know. All those doubts must be addressed before it can go on sale. But you can’t find any of that out if government agencies seal up cultured meat packages before they can be tested at all.

The Dutch are known worldwide for our cheese and our delicious light beer. We have a unique chance here to add a new product category to that list. Our government’s ambitious business policy aims to make us into the most creative economy in Europe. We want our innovation and food production to outshine the world. And this is what we do about it?

If I may put a request to the government: I want to ask that the NVWA be instructed to lift the seal immediately, and that the government take an active stance by allowing the new food products to be tested as soon as possible. I volunteer myself to try this cultured meat at my own risk. And we’ve started a petition. Sign if you want the opportunity to try it yourself.

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