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Cell-Based Meat: A Potential Boon for the UK Economy?

Zoe Rhoades explores the future of the meat industry, its current dynamics and regulatory hurdles, as documented in an Oxford Economics report.

Winston Churchill once said, “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium”. Perhaps he had foresight in areas outside of politics, but today the cultivated meat industry has huge potential, and even the most conservative global projections suggest sales will be over $100 billion by 2040

Cultivated meat is an alternative to traditional meat that is grown in a lab using the cells of a live animal. These cells are obtained by performing a biopsy, from which stem cells are extracted, manipulated, and replicated using a scaffold to direct their formation into a meat-like product. The final product is further manipulated to make it taste like meat which we would obtain from traditional farming practices. 

Ivy Farm Technologies is an Oxford spinout, founded by former engineering DPhil student Russ Tucker and Associate Professor Cathy Ye, using a system of continuous cell replication for production of cultivated meat. They argue that their technology is unique from that of competitors because of its distinctive scaffold system, from which growth results in a continuous harvest of cells, and its lower production costs. 

Last year the spinout commissioned the consultancy, Oxford Economics, to produce a report laying out the dynamics of the cultivated meat sector. The report estimates that the global demand for cultivated meat would be about £10.3 billion, with consumer spending in the UK being between £850 million to £1.7 billion by 2030. The industry alone is expected to contribute between £1.1 and £2.1 billion of gross value to UK GDP. So, what does this contribution consist of?

The first component is the direct sale of cultivated meat products. This is expected to generate between £290-574 million for the UK economy. The industry’s spending on goods and services in the UK supply chain is expected to add between £414-829 million and the final £369-738 million accounts for wages paid to individuals involved cultivated meat industry and relevant supply chains.  

The second component comes in the form of jobs. This report estimates that in 2030, between 9,200-16,500 jobs will be created in the UK’s cultivated meat industry, with about 48% employed directly by the industry and 52% employed through the procurement of goods and services.

Lastly, the cultivated meat industry is expected to generate between £266-523 million and this would be able to provide an annual salary for the equivalent of 5,000-10,000 teachers in UK schools, or 6,000-12,000 nurses if we assume the constancy of salaries in real terms. 

This report envisions the cultivated meat industry to gradually phase out the traditional farming industry. Cultivated meat offers the benefits of country’s dependency on imports, food security, and ensuring that UK farming is maintained to high standards. However, the report does little to address how traditional farms will be affected by the cultivated meat industry, and it is unclear if the economic benefits reaped can help traditional farms become more sustainable in the transition.

In a press release, the CEO of Ivy Farm Technologies, Rich Dillon, explains that this report is the “missing piece of the jigsaw that fill in the economic benefits to the UK” and that if the approval can be obtained from the FSA, the UK may become a “powerhouse for alternative proteins, exporting our products and technology across the globe and reducing the UK’s reliance on imported meat”. 

To gain access to the UK market, cultivated meat would be classified as “novel foods” and companies would be required to complete a full application set out by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA). However, this requires a thorough submission of administrative data, information about the novel food, certificates, along with scientific reports and opinions. As a result, the FSA’s process can take between 18 months to 3 years to approve new products. Other challenges include meeting safety and ethical concerns around taking a biopsy in an “invasive and non-consensual procedure”

No applications to the FSA for cultivated meat have been made as of May 2021. Yet countries like Singapore, have already set out guidelines for approval, and due to their case-by-case approach, they have become the first country to approve the sale of a cultivated meat product, namely, Eat Just Inc.’s cultivated chicken bites. 

The UK FSA needs to look at the advantages of being a ‘first mover’ in the cultivated meat industry and streamlining its regulatory applications process to make it easier for startups to sell their products to UK consumers. Neglecting this urgency means losing out on billions gained from first mover knowledge.

Image Credit: Ivy Farm Technologies Limited

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