Written by: Cedric Choo, Tamara Barsova, Benjamin Pei-Wei Yang & Vivien Su
Meat is a highly embedded element within culinary culture. From chicken rice to chilli crab, the ubiquity of meat in local cuisine is symptomatic of a larger global reality: the high amounts of meat in our diets. However, this comes with an environmental cost, as producing meat is resource-intensive. For example, a life cycle analysis conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that red meat such as beef and lamb is accountable for 10 to 40 times as many greenhouse gas emissions as common vegetables and grains. To address climate change, the consumption of conventional meat has to fall drastically. But how can this be done if meat already occupies a position of such cultural importance in society? Lab-grown meat, or clean meat, seems to offer a developing panacea.
What is clean meat?
Clean meat differs from meat analogues like mock meat, which are made from processed vegetarian ingredients to mimic meat. It is artificially grown in laboratories, using stem cells derived from the muscle and fat tissues of a living animal. The stem cells are multiplied under lab conditions, eventually forming clean meat that tastes exactly like conventional meat.
The benefits of clean meat
Clean meat does not require the resource-intensive inputs that characterizes conventional meat, and is hence better for the environment. As awareness has grown about the environmental impacts of conventional meat, there is growing demand from consumers for such protein alternatives. In 2018, the market for plant-based “meat” (or plant-based products designed to imitate the look and taste of conventional meat) grew by 23%, exceeding $760 million, and is set to grow even further. Though no clean meat company has yet brought their products to mass market, there is significant potential for the clean meat industry to disrupt the multi-trillion dollar global meat market, as the plant-based meat industry has shown.
With such potential for disruption, Singapore should embrace clean meat. Not only would this bring about huge economic benefits, it can also alleviate several other food-related problems affecting Singapore. For one, it could bring about better food security. According to the UN World Food Programme, food insecurity is projected to increase globally due to climate change, as more common extreme weather events affect crop production. A domestic sector that produces clean meat could help decrease Singapore’s reliance on food imports and hence increase food security. Also, clean meat can bring public health benefits. As it is produced in sterile facilities, the use of antibiotics becomes redundant, unlike in conventional meat where large amounts of antibiotics are used, increasing the risk of creating antibiotic-resistant superbugs that could potentially kill up to 10 million people and cost $100 trillion annually by 2050.
Why Singapore should embrace clean meat
Singapore has the necessary research capabilities for clean meat. The National University of Singapore is ranked among the top ten universities in the world by the Good Food Institute in clean meat development potential. Recent developments in Singapore suggest that the government is indeed interested in such alternative proteins. Temasek Holdings recently led a US$75 million investment round in Impossible Foods, a plant-based meat company based in California. On July 26, the government announced the formation of the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), tasked with dealing with global food supply challenges caused by climate change, and seizing opportunities in the global food industry.
What should Singapore do?
For lab-grown meat to flourish, the government has a big role to play. For starters, a legal framework must be set in place to support the growth of clean meat companies. At the moment, there are no mentions of lab-grown meat in the legislative texts of either the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority or the National Environment Agency. Amending the legal definitions of meat will lay the necessary legal and regulatory frameworks, so that existing provisions on meat products now can also be applied to clean meat products in the future.
Additionally, the government can set up investment funds to support and encourage private startups and companies to invest in clean meat technology. The Japanese government has successfully done so with their A-FIVE (Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Fund Corporation for Innovation, Value-chain and Expansion Japan) Fund and its investment in startups like Integriculture, which seeks to commercialise clean meat in Japan by 2021.
Conclusively speaking, clean meat is a new kind of meat product that need not trigger any behavioural and dietary changes, while drastically helping us reduce greenhouse gas emissions, build Singapore’s food security, and mitigate the effects of climate change. For that to occur, legal and regulatory frameworks must first be set up for the new industry to develop, while government investments through means such as public-private funds further facilitate technological advancement.
Image Credit: LAB-A-PORTER