Britain could become a world leader in cultured meat production post-Brexit by outflanking the EU to bring the hi-tech products to market swiftly, industry leaders say.
Cultured meat is grown from animal cells in a bioreactor that can be powered by 100% renewable energy, thereby curbing both greenhouse gas emissions and animal cruelty.
EU product approvals for the technology will take up to three years but the lab-grown meat sector is hoping that a post-Brexit white paper on the national food strategy due in May could accelerate the UK process.
Figures in the £1.9bn global industry say they have already had meetings with the UK’s Food Standards Agency on the post-Brexit regulatory framework for the products.
In Singapore where products made from cultivated meat are already on sale, the evaluation process takes nine to 12 months.
“There’s definitely an opportunity for the UK to become one of the primary innovation hubs for these sorts of novel technologies,” Robert Jones, the head of the Cellular Agriculture Europe trade association told the Guardian.
“The UK is a large market and every company will be looking at it as an incredible commercial opportunity,” said Jones, who is also an executive for the Dutch startup Mosa Meat.
The company hopes to seek regulatory approval for two beef products later this year. Peter Verstrate, its co-founder, said that the UK “would be at least a year ahead of the EU” in bringing products to market if it adopted a six- to nine-month assessment period.
Last year the UK Food Standards Agency chair, Prof Susan Jebb, described lab-grown meat as one of “the new innovations that might help us to change course” away from climate catastrophe. A “lens of environmental sustainability” might be applied to novel, safe and sustainable foods, she suggested.
A Defra spokesperson said: “We want to create the best possible environment for innovators, investors and consumers, and encourage safe innovation in the sustainable protein sector.”
The EU’s regulatory process can be lengthy in part because approval is needed from experts of all 27 member nations.
Edward Bray, a spokesperson for the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), stressed that its scientific assessments took place within a nine-month window – although the clock on this could be stopped “if further data or clarification are required”.
Beyond that, the approvals timeline “is in the hands of the EU legislators who are responsible for the regulatory processes,” he said. “This is outside the EFSA’s remit.”
The EFSA’s ability to return to a business with additional questions several months after an application was filed made investment and operations decisions very difficult, said Russ Tucker, the co-founder of Ivy Farm, which plans to file for approval of a cultured mince line in the UK this year.
“While I’m waiting for a decision, how can I then build a facility, deploy capital, recruit people, and get supply arrangements with supermarkets and restaurants? It’s very difficult to make those business decisions when there isn’t transparency on how the application is moving through the process,” he said.
“There’s a big opportunity for the UK to think about how to do things differently from the EU,” he added.
About a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, mostly livestock production. Lab-grown meat could substantially reduce this, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – with some studies projecting emissions savings of up to 80%.
But food safety will be crucial as new technologies raise new risks. Cells used to make cultivated meat could become contaminated, or suffer “dysregulation,” as happens with cancer cells, after being multiplied many times.
The technology’s bioreactors are also energy intensive and, as with electric cars, the use of fossil fuel-powered grids would limit emissionsavings.
A recent report by the thinktank IPES-Food said claims that lab-grown meat was sustainable were “limited and speculative.” The paper also dismissed assumptions that the technology could help feed a more affluent world population of up to 10 billion by 2050.
“I would [also] be concerned that most of the data on [product] safety are coming from the firms themselves,” said Prof Philip Howard, an IPES-Food expert. “There aren’t enough independent studies. This is a very new technology and frankly it’s not commercially viable. There’s no way to make money on it so pushing for regulatory approval is premature.”
Clare Oxborrow of Friends of the Earth added: “This is a technology that’s still in its infancy and poses many questions, including who owns and benefits from it.”
Meat processors such as JBS, Tyson and Cargill are increasingly investing in the startup sector, according to IPES-Food but states are getting in on the act too.
Last month, the Dutch government ploughed €60m (£51m) into cellular agriculture technology, shortly after moving to allow tastings of the slaughter-free tech. In Israel a clean meat consortium was also awarded an $18m (£14m) government grant.