When a US-based alt-meat company wanted to benchmark itself with the best in the world, it choose New Zealand lamb. Black Sheep, a Silicon Valley start-up making plant-based lamb, named its first product New Zealand Heritage Lamb, just to show how good it could be.
It’s flattering to be copied, right?
It’s also a good time to be concerned. You’d be mistaken if you thought meat alternatives aren’t on the rise, if not a threat to the traditional product. The alternative, or analogue, meat business is growing apace. And it has our precious lamb in its sites.
But there’s alt and then there’s alt. At the inaugural Aotearoa Cultured Meat and Seafood Symposium this week Olivia Ogilvie, a scientist at Canterbury University, pointed out that the sector is so young it’s positively embryonic (my words not hers). “It’s very early in its evolution and not too late for New Zealand to participate,” she says.
So far, commercial success has been limited to plant-based or fungi-based meats, she says. Some such as the Impossible Burger have been enhanced with the addition of a lab-grown molecule, heme, but fully lab-based meat has yet to reach commercial scale. That’s good news for an industry that has yet to be established in New Zealand.
Terms of engagement
A challenge for anyone entering the sector is the wide variety of terms, often used interchangeably. Cultured meat for example includes cell-based, lab-grown, cell-cultured and cultivated protein.
The difference between plant-based and cultivated is in the source of the protein. Cultivated meat is sourced from mammalian cells, grown in a bioreactor, harvested and scaled up on a substrate using growth serum to become a delicious chunk of tissue. Mmm taste that lab.
So far, the cultured meat industry has produced undifferentiated patties or chunks of fish flesh. The science is moving fast though, and every year brings commercial viability closer to reality.
But not so fast that it’s game over. Kate Krueger, a consultant to the sector and former chief scientist at cultured-milk start-up Perfect Day, beamed in from the US to encourage New Zealand to get involved. “Cell-based meat is still very expensive and not competitive against conventional food … What’s stopping us? Ingredients, price (cell-culture is expensive), logistics (supply chain, scaling, manufacturing – there’s so much room for growth here), nutritional standards and environmental considerations. This is important. It’s true that cell-based meats use less land and water but the energy consumption is not lower, which affects the overall footprint.”
The conference was the first of its kind and long-awaited by one of its champions, Georgina Dowd, a scientist at Plant and Food Research. Dowd says New Zealand is slow to the party but opportunities knock. It’s not clear, for example, what the end game will be in cellular protein – we won’t all be eating lab-patties like they’re Solent Green. It could be that cultured meats provide a scalable way to commercialise New Zealand’s unique or even native protein.
Dowd’s focus is fish, notably chinook salmon and snapper/tamure. She says the work could lead to a variety of applications, only one of which is fish fillets, including disease management, reproduction, fish health and aquaculture.
One of the terms used in this sector is ‘immortalised cell lines’, meaning cultured protein could reproduce certain cells in perpetuity. In which case you want the source stock to be very healthy or very interesting. This could provide another advantage for New Zealand which has an excellent reputation for genetics in cattle and sheep, and also has many species unique to the planet.
Laura Domigan, a scientist at the Liggins Institute (University of Auckland), says the quality of New Zealand’s cattle could be a point of difference, making heroes out of our stock, as this well-dressed cow demonstrates.
Fish too are pretty interesting as a source of protein. According to Dowd, the usual way for mammals to grow muscles is through hypertrophy, that is, expanding what’s already there – like the dude below. Fish have this ability but can also grow the number of muscles, hyperplasia, which is rare in mammals, but can be done under special circumstances as below, right. Cultured fish protein is an area of great interest internationally and is again an area New Zealand could specialise in, she says.
The overall sense of the webinar was that New Zealand is well-positioned to enter the cultured meat sector, given the capability in genetics, food innovation and unique source material. There are barriers though, not the least being a lack of a regulatory framework, funding and interest at a government or industry level. Singapore for example has already approved the commercial release of Just Egg cultured chicken nuggets and the US is four years into its own regulatory regime.
Amos Palfreyman of Food HQ had the last word. When I challenged him that New Zealand’s advantages are in soil, air and water, not in hi-tech manufacturing, he said that our greatest asset is our people. “Our greatest export could be our minds and IP that we create rather than the raw materials we are blessed with.”
I’m keeping a regular watch on the emerging protein sector so keep checking into The Feed for more. Sign up to our newsletter!