In an effort to spark conversation about the future of food and sustainable meat alternatives, an Australian startup has showcased a meatball made from lab-grown cultured meat using genetic material from the long-extinct woolly mammoth.
Unveiled at an Amsterdam science museum, Vow, the company behind the culinary innovation, insists the mammoth meatball is no April Fools’ joke.
Engineering cultured meat
Cultivated meat, also known as cultured or cell-based meat, is produced from animal cells without the need to kill livestock. This method is considered more environmentally friendly and humane. Collaborating with Professor Ernst Wolvetang from the Australian Institute for Bioengineering at the University of Queensland, Vow successfully engineered mammoth muscle protein. The team utilized the DNA sequence for mammoth myoglobin, a crucial protein that imparts flavor to meat, and completed any missing portions with elephant DNA.
The completed sequence was then introduced into myoblast stem cells derived from a sheep. These cells multiplied, resulting in the 20 billion cells employed by Vow to cultivate the mammoth meat.
Over 100 companies worldwide are developing cultivated meat products, many of which are startups like Vow. If this technology becomes mainstream, it could significantly reduce the environmental impact of global meat production. Currently, however, Singapore is the only country to have approved cell-based meat for consumption. Vow aims to sell its first product there, a cultivated Japanese quail meat, later this year.
“It was ridiculously easy and fast,” remarked Wolvetang. “We did this in a couple of weeks.” Initially, the team considered producing dodo meat; however, the necessary DNA sequences were unavailable.
To date, no one has sampled the mammoth meatball. “We haven’t seen this protein for thousands of years,” Wolvetang explained. “So we have no idea how our immune system would react when we eat it. But if we did it again, we could certainly do it in a way that would make it more palatable to regulatory bodies.”
Wolvetang acknowledged the initial apprehension people might feel toward such meat, saying, “It’s a little bit strange and new—it’s always like that at first. But from an environmental and ethical point of view, I personally think [cultivated meat] makes a lot of sense.”
The mammoth meatball is a one-time creation that is not intended for commercial production. Instead, it is intended to encourage conversations about the future of meat and the potential of new, more sustainable options. Tim Noakesmith, the founder of Vow, emphasized the symbolism of the woolly mammoth, which became extinct due to climate change, as a reminder of the need for a more sustainable future.
Seren Kell, the science and technology manager at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit promoting plant- and cell-based alternatives to animal products, believes the project will prompt new discussions about the potential of cultivated meat to produce more sustainable foods and reduce the climate impact of our food system. While the mammoth project is an outlier in the cultivated meat sector, which typically focuses on traditional livestock such as cattle, pigs, and poultry, it demonstrates the potential for innovation in meat production.
“By cultivating beef, pork, chicken, and seafood, we can have the most impact in terms of reducing emissions from conventional animal agriculture and satisfying growing global demand for meat while meeting our climate targets,” Kell explained.
A greener alternative for the planet
This cutting-edge approach to meat production offers several significant environmental benefits compared to traditional livestock farming.
First and foremost, cultured meat requires significantly less land. According to studies, cell-based meat production can reduce the land needed for meat production by up to 99%. Deforestation substantially contributes to climate change; reducing the land required for livestock farming could help preserve vital ecosystems and biodiversity. Additionally, it could free up land for reforestation efforts, further mitigating climate change by increasing carbon sequestration.
Cultivated meat production generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock farming is responsible for approximately 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, primarily due to methane released by ruminant animals like cows and sheep. In contrast, research suggests cell-based meat production could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 96%.
Water conservation is another critical benefit of cultivated meat. Traditional livestock farming is notoriously water-intensive, with vast quantities required for animal hydration, irrigation of feed crops, and cleaning processes. Studies have shown that cell-based meat production can reduce water consumption. With water scarcity becoming an increasingly pressing global issue, cultivated meat could be crucial in preserving our planet’s water resources.
Cultivated meat presents a more efficient way of utilizing resources. Conventional meat production involves feeding animals large amounts of grains and water, only to obtain a fraction of the energy and nutrients in return. In contrast, cultivated meat production bypasses the inefficiencies of raising animals, leading to a more resource-efficient process. This increased efficiency could contribute to global food security, ensuring the growing human population has access to nutritious and sustainable protein sources.
Cultured meat also has the potential to reduce pollution associated with livestock farming. The massive amounts of manure generated by traditional farming practices can lead to water and air pollution, with harmful consequences for human health and the environment. Since cell-based meat production does not involve raising animals, it avoids these pollution problems.
Despite the obvious environmental benefits, Vow still face the challenge of changing consumer habits. “We have a behavior change problem when it comes to meat consumption,” states George Peppou, Vow CEO.
“The goal is to transition a few billion meat eaters away from eating [conventional] animal protein to eating things that can be produced in electrified systems.
“And we believe the best way to do that is to invent meat. We look for cells that are easy to grow, really tasty and nutritious, and then mix and match those cells to create really tasty meat.”
Cultivated meat offers a promising solution to the environmental challenges posed by traditional livestock farming. By reducing land use, greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, and pollution, cultivated meat has the potential to revolutionize our food system and create a more sustainable future for our planet.