Would you eat meat and milk made in a lab? The Australian companies turning science-fiction into reality
Susan Neill-Fraser, one of Tasmania’s most high-profile murderers, has been granted parole and is expected to leave prison within weeks
Follow the latest developments as Britain mourns Queen Elizabeth II
Throwing a lamb chop on the barbie is about as Australian as it gets, but many are seeking out alternative sources of protein amid growing concerns over food security, animal welfare and the environment.
So what if you could sink your teeth into a juicy lamb rump that had been grown in a lab?
Melbourne start-up Magic Valley has managed to cultivate meat using a small sample of skin cells taken from, Lucy the Lamb, whom the company assures is still roaming happily in her paddock.
Lucy's cells were placed in a mixture of water, amino acids and other nutrients and grown in a large container called a bioreactor, before being harvested and formed into meat.
Magic Valley founder Paul Bevan said the "unstructured" product is like a mince found in sausages and burgers, which will be produced on a small scale for restaurants and the food service industry within 12-18 months, pending regulatory approval.
The long-term goal is "structured" products like lamb chops, steaks and strips, which the company is aiming to have on Australian supermarket shelves in two to three years.
"The taste profile is, for all intents and purposes, identical to a traditional lamb product," Mr Bevan said.
"The mouth feel and texture we're still working on refining and obviously that becomes a little bit more important when we get to the structured products.
"But the prototypes we've created caramelise just like traditional lamb when you are cooking it and so we're hopeful that we're pretty close."
The end game is lamb that has the same taste, flavour and texture as the quintessential Aussie meat, while optimising its "nutritional profile".
"For example, we might be able to add a higher protein content, additional omega-3, vitamins, and remove some of the less desirable properties like saturated fats and inflammatory properties," Mr Bevan said.
However, the proof will be in the pudding, as many barriers still need to be overcome before the average Australian household can add cultivated, also known as cultured, cellular and no-kill meat, to their shopping lists.
When images of the world's first lab-grown burger were beamed around the globe almost a decade ago, it paved the way for one of the biggest ever shake-ups in the food production industry.
But while scientists have since made great headway in improving the technology, none have managed to crack the toughest nut faced by the nascent industry – how to scale the technology to achieve mass production while making it price competitive with animal-sourced protein.
The industry remains vague on how much cultivated meat will cost as they work furiously behind the scenes to bring the price tag down.
But it's safe to say it will be a fair bit more expensive than traditional meat and Australian consumers can expect to pay fine-dining restaurant prices if they want the enjoy the novelty of eating meat produced this way – at least for the first couple of years.
Another Australian company, Vow, has taken a significant step toward manufacturing cultivated meat products at scale after building the world's second commercial cultured meat factory, in Alexandria in Sydney's inner-west.
Vow co-founder George Peppou said the factory, which will open in the coming weeks, will start off making products for export to countries like Singapore and the United States, with high-end restaurants their first target market.
"Australia is not going to be one of the fastest markets to be taking up cultured meat for lots of reasons, but what I do think is really exciting is we are already a big protein exporter," Mr Peppou said.
"In the same way we export a lot of our animal protein, we can become a really major cultured protein exporter as well and that for me is the really compelling opportunity."
Mr Peppou anticipates Australia's top ten export markets for beef and lamb, including China, Japan and the middle east, will also be big markets for alternative protein.
Tapping into the Australian market will be slower as a nation of meat eaters comes to terms with eating protein cultured in a Petri dish, while regulatory hurdles also need to be overcome.
Vow will launch a product in Singapore by the end of the year before it hopes to move into the restaurant scene in Australia in the first half of 2023.
Mr Peppou said the company is aiming to get its products onto supermarket shelves in Australia in two to three years' time.
Mr Peppou said the company is not aiming to re-create traditional forms of meat, instead building up a "cell library" from undomesticated species including kangaroo, buffalo, alpaca and even crocodile to create a "new category of food".
It works by taking a biopsy about the size of an almond from the animal and isolating the stem cells that are responsible for creating the building blocks in meat – fat cells, muscle cells and connective tissue.
Those cells are fed into a cultivator and exposed to a nutrient-rich mixture, which convinces them they are still in the animal and causes them to multiply to form what is biologically the same as meat, without slaughtering any animals.
"If we have the technology that can create any meat from cells, we see no need to restrict ourselves to the animals we have traditionally eaten," Mr Peppou said.
"We are exploring the biodiversity that exists on the planet by going out and sourcing biopsies from animals that would never be produced industrially and storing them in a library to create an unlimited range of products."
Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows many Australians are already embracing a vegetarian or at least flexitarian diet, with the amount of dairy and meat substitutes purchased from supermarkets and other food retailers jumping 28 per cent between 2018-2019 and 2020-2021.
So-called synthetic milk offers dairy milk without concerns such as methane emissions or animal welfare. But is it the whey forward?
We are all now accustomed to seeing soy and almond milk on the shelves but there is an emerging technology that is being harnessed to produce alternatives to dairy.
Two Australian companies – Eden Brew and All G Foods – have succeeded in using precision fermentation to "brew" dairy proteins in a lab that are identical to the ones found in cow milk.
Eden Brew chief executive Jim Fader said by taking the genetic information from a cow and using yeast to grow the proteins through a "natural" fermentation process, the company has managed to form casein micelles, which provide the essential building blocks for milk's nutritional properties, structure and texture.
Mr Fader says the end product feels and tastes like milk but with "a bit of tinkering to get the right level of sweetness", while also being lactose-free.
"There are a lot of people who are avoiding dairy, but they miss the dairy sensory so they might be drinking soy, almond or oat milk, but they haven't forgotten how nice traditional dairy was," he said.
"And there are a lot of people that would like to avoid dairy, because they're lactose intolerant or they have animal welfare and environmental concerns … but they don't like the taste of the alternatives."
Mr Fader says they are about to put an application into the food standards authority, which will take about a year to approve, allowing them to launch an ice cream product in Australia around summer next year, followed by an animal-free milk around August 2024.
He said the price would be on par with oat and almond milk when it first enters the market, before reaching price parity with dairy milk by 2030.
They will first test the market in southern Queensland and Northern NSW, in the free-spirited communities of Byron Bay and Ballina, before rolling the product out more widely in Australia.
Changing diet trends, a fast-growing population and international trade opportunities could help Australia become "a global delicatessen" for protein, according to CSIRO.
"We'll make it in sufficient quantity to sell it in the food service and retail industry in that area before raising capital and scaling as quickly as we can throughout Australia and into international markets from there," Mr Fader said.
Earlier this month, Sydney-based start-up All G Foods raised an initial $25 million to advance the production of its milk alternative, also created through precision fermentation.
All G founder Jan Pacas said the company has managed to make the main milk proteins – casein, whey and lactoferrin, which is a key ingredient found in baby formula.
"From those proteins, there is an endless multiple of possible dairy products you can create … [but] we still need to turn those proteins into products," Mr Pacas said.
Cellular Agriculture Australia released a white paper on August 24 detailing the challenges faced by the industry and three key recommendations to enable the industry to reach its full potential and be globally competitive. In summary, they are:
The not-for-profit group is holding a workshop for industry, research and government stakeholders on September 7 which will look to set aspirational milestones for the sector while identifying key challenges and opportunities for collaboration.
UNSW Professor of Food and Health Johannes le Coutre said around 70 per cent more food will be required to feed the world's population when it reaches 9.8 billion in 2050, and there isn't enough land or water to meet this demand through traditional forms of agriculture.
Prof le Coutre said the alternative protein industry will help fill this gap and complement the agriculture industry, rather than displacing or replacing it.
"There will be a future with conventional animal-based meat, plant-based meat and cell-based meat and there will be blends and mixtures of those as well," he said.
"We cannot supply enough food for Australian cities without involving farmers in the supply chain. We need to work with the farmers, not against them."
Plant-based food producers could soon be forced to drop terms including 'beef', 'sausage' and 'burger' from their packaging.
Magic Valley's Paul Bevan believes people's culinary options will change dramatically once the industry has managed to scale the technology.
"Obviously, until we get to mass production, there won't be any sort of major displacement of traditional animal agriculture," Mr Bevan said.
"But as the population continues to grow, we've got a finite supply of land and resources.
"As the cost and the price of producing traditionally farmed meat continues to rise and the cost of producing cultivated meat continues to come down, I think there will be a very large shift.
"In what time frame that happens, where we shift from traditionally farmed meat to cultivated meat, it's probably decades, but I think there will definitely be a large shift between those two ways that meat is produced."
Cellular Agriculture CEO Sam Perkins said in theory it was possible to offset the animal-based protein industry with cellular agriculture.
"In reality I see cellular agriculture as complementary to existing supplies and as a way of making existing supply chains more sustainable and better for the environment and animals," he said.
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn, and work.
This service may include material from Agence France-Presse (AFP), APTN, Reuters, AAP, CNN and the BBC World Service which is copyright and cannot be reproduced.
AEST = Australian Eastern Standard Time which is 10 hours ahead of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time)
Would you eat meat and milk made in a lab? The Australian companies turning science-fiction into reality