Stem Cell Meat from Singapore: A Taste of the Future (2023)

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Stem Cell Meat from Singapore: A Taste of the Future (1)
Global Societies
Stem Cell Meat from Singapore: A Taste of the Future (2)

For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Just imagine for a moment that you could save the world with chicken nuggets. All you would have to do is just eat them. Your teeth would sink into real meat, yet no animal would have lost its life for your meal. It will have been grown in the laboratory from a single chicken cell. Imagine that there would suddenly be enough meat from the laboratory to feed everybody in the world. Hunger would be a thing of the past. The land now used to grow corn for animal feed could be repurposed, perhaps even for a forest that could draw CO2 out of our atmosphere. Industrial livestock farming would no longer be needed.

To be sure, solutions that sound so simple should be approached with caution. But there is a place where the utopia described above isn’t as far away as it might sound. Where such laboratory chicken can be tasted and where the nuggets are being served up on real plates. That place is Singapore.

Stem Cell Meat from Singapore: A Taste of the Future (3)

Singapore is the first and, thus far, the only country in the world where meat grown in laboratories can be marketed to and eaten by consumers. The government is hopeful that the country can become home to the technologies behind the food of the future. It is likely, after all, to become an extremely profitable industry, with investors around the world already injecting billions of dollars into the new food sector. Alternative sources of protein, including lab-grown meat, currently make up 2 percent of the global meat market. By 2035, that share is expected to be five times as high. And now that food prices have skyrocketed due to the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, adding to the hunger and environmental crises already afflicting the world, some experts believe that meat grown from stem cells could develop into a technological revolution.

Stem Cell Meat from Singapore: A Taste of the Future (4)
Stem Cell Meat from Singapore: A Taste of the Future (5)

Beyond that, Singapore is also dependent on food imports, with 90 percent coming from abroad. The country has hardly any of its own farmland. The government wants to change the situation by 2030 and is funding startups that might be able to help, such as one that is looking into ways to produce a replacement for eggs, and another that produces intelligent rooftop garden systems where heads of lettuce grow on self-watering, vertical columns. Much of the focus, though, is on stem cell technologies aimed at producing things like milk, fish and meat from stem cells.

In brief, the idea is as follows: Stem cells are taken from animals through a biopsy and are then frozen in liquid nitrogen to preserve them for several years. To produce meat, the cells are multiplied in a bioreactor. The technology isn’t quite yet ready for mass production, but theoretically, a single biopsy would be sufficient to produce hundreds of tons of meat.

The American startup Eat Just, based in Silicon Valley, is currently in the process of opening a laboratory in Singapore. The company’s focus is on producing chicken meat, which it plans to introduce to supermarkets in the coming years. In early November, the company invited a group of test subjects to the fancy Marriott Hotel in the center of Singapore to be served a dish of the future: investors, food technicians, company founders – and me.

Stem Cell Meat from Singapore: A Taste of the Future (6)
Stem Cell Meat from Singapore: A Taste of the Future (7)

The Dinner

During the meal, the lighting is dimmed, and a film is projected onto the wall about the climate crisis, damaged farmland, hungry populations and rising sea levels. The first three courses, all of which are vegan, even have names that recall the challenges our environment is facing: "Forest Floor," "Fields of Corn" and "Flooded Future."

We learn how people have spent millennia breeding fowl, resulting in the chicken as we know it today – one of the most important sources of protein for the global population. There are 23 billion chickens on Earth, and the video recounts how the process of feeding, slaughtering, refrigerating and transporting them requires a huge amount of energy and land, which is helping to fuel the climate crisis. All because people continue to want to eat excessive quantities of meat, even though it’s not necessary.

Finally, the course is brought in for which everyone has been waiting for this evening: chicken nuggets from the laboratory. The waitress serves the plates and presents the dish:

Maple Waffle, Crispy Cultivated Chicken Bite, Hot Sauce

A fried nugget of laboratory chicken on a waffle with a dab of brown sauce, garnished with pink blossoms

Stem Cell Meat from Singapore: A Taste of the Future (8)
Stem Cell Meat from Singapore: A Taste of the Future (9)

Throughout human history, advancements in food technology have had the power to change the way people live, things like fermenting fruit, baking bread, iodizing salt, controlling fire and domesticating animals. But for a new foodstuff, which may make sense in theory, to actually be accepted in practice, it must be affordable and available in large quantities. And more than anything, it has to taste good.

The Flavor

The knife slices through the breading and then through the meat itself. My first thought: It seems like normal chicken meat and can almost be cut through with a fork. I scratch off a bit of breading to get a better view of the meat itself. Its color is a bit lighter than normal chicken meat, a whitish-gray shade. The first bite: soft, not much resistance, a bit stringy and reminiscent of tofu. It’s a little watery. But it definitely tastes and smells like chicken.

One person at the table comments that there is room for improvement, while another says that if she had the choice, she would opt for a soybean schnitzel over one made from stem cells. They taste better, she says. But I find myself wondering, would people really be able to taste the difference on the street, given the way chicken nuggets are normally eaten – namely quickly, in large quantities and by hand? I give the meat a rating of five out of 10. Everyone at the table agrees that it’s not good enough yet. Innovation must grab your attention. Meat from the laboratory has to be better than the cheap chicken meat used by fast food chains.

But what about the other criteria? Price, availability and authorization? It’s time to head for the lab.

In the Laboratory

Serene Chng puts on a white lab coat. She is a biologist and works for Shiok Meats, a Singapore company that hopes to bring seafood made from stem cells to the market. It’s her job to find the highest quality cells to use as a starting point, those that reproduce the best.

Chng leads the way through the laboratory, where lobster, shrimp and crab stem cells are extracted and then examined. "We learn here what the cells like to eat and how often they must be fed," says Chng, referring to the nutrient solutions, full of carbohydrates, amino acids and minerals, that replace the blood that nourishes cells in living animals. "What you see here is the beginning of a revolution."

She leads the way past microscopes, UV lamps, centrifuges and devices for analyzing metabolism. The technology behind stem cell meat is borrowed from the processes used to produce certain medical drugs and vaccines. The corona vaccine produced by AstraZeneca, for example, is made using a similar process.

Stem Cell Meat from Singapore: A Taste of the Future (10)
Stem Cell Meat from Singapore: A Taste of the Future (11)
Stem Cell Meat from Singapore: A Taste of the Future (12)
Stem Cell Meat from Singapore: A Taste of the Future (13)

Chng’s coworker opens the top of the cryotank, which contains the stem cells. Nitrogen steams out of it. The most potent stem cells are kept inside, cooled to minus 196 degrees Celsius. Just one of the cells can produce as much shrimp meat as you want, says Chng. That process takes place nearby in large, stainless-steel reactors, where the cells reproduce. I had imagined entire lobsters growing in the machines, but that’s not entirely accurate. Only muscle and fat cells are reproduced, growing in a kind of soup that gets thicker and thicker until it reaches the consistency of ground meat. The cell soup is ready after six to eight weeks before being enriched with plant fibers in a process that Shiok Meats prefers not to describe in detail. The result is a kind of meat paste out of which foodstuffs can be produced. In other words, the final product like the chicken nugget, is not 100 percent meat.

Criticism of Lab-Grown Meat

As promising as the technology might sound, criticism of laboratory meat abounds. The primary focus of such criticism is the amount of energy necessary for its production, particularly for the fabrication of large quantities. If a significant share of the global population is to be fed with cultivated meat, huge bioreactors, sophisticated machinery and complex production facilities will be necessary.

The sterility of production facilities is vital. If a bacteria or virus finds its way into the cell cultures, it could paralyze the entire process. Establishing this form of hyper-hygiene, particularly given the mass production facilities that will ultimately be necessary, is likely to drive up the cost of laboratory meat.

The term "cruelty-free meat,” which the lab-grown meat industry likes to use, has also been the focus of some criticism. One aspect of that criticism is the extraction of stem cells. The animal doesn’t generally die in the procedure, but it is subject to significant amounts of stress. The primary focus of the criticism, however, is the nutrient solution in which the cultivated cells grow inside the bioreactors. Fetal bovine serum is frequently used for the purpose, extracted from the hearts of living calf fetuses. It is an extremely expensive and complex process and contradicts claims that lab-grown meat eliminates animal suffering. Plant-based alternatives are now available, but they are frequently derived from soy, the cultivation of which is often excoriated for the damage it does to the environment.

Few comprehensive studies have thus far been completed regarding the safety of lab-grown meat, in part because it isn’t yet consumed in sufficient quantities around the world. It seems safe to conclude, though, that far fewer antibiotics are deployed when compared to traditional meat production. Once an approval application is filed in the EU, the European Food Safety Authority will evaluate the product to determine if it is safe. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S. found that the lab-grown meat from a company in California is "as safe as comparable foods produced by other methods.”

I have a few questions of my own. Is lab-grown meat actually meat?

The founder of Shiok Meats, Sandhya Sriram, a stem-cell researcher, says: "Yes. It is 100 percent meat. Just imagine it like vegetables that are grown in a greenhouse instead of in nature. The result is the same, but the route taken isn’t the natural one, but a technological one."

Can vegetarians eat it as well?

Sriram: "Vegetarians who refrain from eating meat out of concern for the well-being of animals and the climate crisis are extremely interested in lab-grown meat. In cruelty-free meat."

Why is there a need for yet another meat alternative? We already have burgers made from soy, mungo beans and chickpeas.

Sriram: "It is naïve to hope that a majority of people will soon switch to vegetarianism. The consumption of meat is rising, as is the global population. Our approach is: Let people eat their meat and fish, but let’s make it sustainable."

If meat produced from stem cells is supposed to solve so many problems, why can’t I find it in the supermarket?

Two terms are consistently used when discussing the problems faced by lab-grown meat: Scaling and price. They are concerns held by stem-cell researcher Sandhya Sriram as well: "We rely on extremely expensive technologies and devices from the pharmaceutical industry, and we are using them to produce food." It will take time before sufficient lab-grown meat can be produced to sate the appetites of billions of people, she says, along with larger, cheaper bioreactors. Progress has been made, she says, but only in tiny steps.

Several years ago, says Sriram, the price of a kilogram of shrimp meat from Shiok Meats was around $10,000. Since then, though, the company has been able to reduce the price to around $50 per kilo. More time is still needed before meat from the bioreactor can come close to competing with meat from industrial livestock farming. But she believes that lab-grown meat products could become competitive within the next decade. And they must then be approved for sale. But such a process could be difficult in the European Union, since individual member states must give their thumbs up, and it is unclear how many of them might decide to protect their domestic meat industries instead.

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Stem Cell Meat from Singapore: A Taste of the Future (15)
Stem Cell Meat from Singapore: A Taste of the Future (16)

When it comes to the approval of lab-grown meat, Asia could end up taking the lead. Many countries in Asia are far more open to the technology than European countries, says Sandhya Sriram. That could be a function of the greater challenges the continent is facing when it comes to hunger and climate change-related catastrophes. Every year, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issues a "code red for humanity." In 2021, more than a million people in Asia didn’t have sufficient access to food, with farmers struggling with their harvests and fishing boats returning to port with smaller and smaller catches. Forecasts indicate that the region, currently home to 4.7 billion people, will grow by another 600 million people in the next 30 years.

A new technology to combat hunger and which can fill up more stomachs with fewer resources? That is a bit of good news.

Back to dinner at the hotel in Singapore. After the chicken nugget, the chef comes out to the dining room with yet another course he has prepared. It is again lab-grown chicken, but this time it’s "the next generation," he says. Satay skewers with peanut sauce.

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Again, the aroma of grilled chicken fills the room. I pull the meat from the wooden skewers, some of it sticking. This time, the texture of the meat is firmer.

Can the world be saved by chicken nuggets or grilled chicken skewers? Will people ever buy foodstuffs produced in a manner similar to a COVID vaccine? I don’t have the answers. I pick up the last of the three satay skewers from the plate and take a bite of the chicken that was produced in a cellular soup inside a stainless-steel vat. It is saturated in marinade and peanut sauce. I’ve certainly eaten worse chicken. Seven out of 10 points.

This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe on injustices, societal challenges and sustainable development in a globalized world. A selection of the features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appear in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of DER SPIEGEL International. The project is initially scheduled to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) is funding the project for a period of three years at a total cost of around €2.3 million.

No. The foundation exerts no influence whatsoever on the stories and other elements that appear in the series.

Yes. Large European media outlets like the Guardian and El País have similar sections on their websites -- called "Global Development" and "Planeta Futuro," respectively -- that are likewise funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In recent years, DER SPIEGEL has complete two projects with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the European Journalism Centre (EJC): "Expedition BeyondTomorrow," about global sustainability goals, and the journalist refugee project "The New Arrivals," which resulted in several award-winning features.

All Global Societies pieces will be published in the Globale Gesellschaft section of the DER SPIEGEL website; a selection of articles will be made available in English on the International website Global Societies.

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