22 February 2022
Raising the steaks on cellular agriculture

Jonathan contributes to the Conservative Environment Network’s latest collection of essays: ‘Restoring our green and pleasant land’.

Globally, demand for protein is rising steeply as the Asian middle class grows and standards of living increase. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that global meat consumption is likely to double by 2050. Conventional agriculture will struggle to meet this demand sustainably. Farmland is in many parts of the world producing as much food as possible, sometimes in environmentally damaging ways, while elsewhere demand for new farmland to expand production of certain commodities, such as soya and beef, is driving deforestation and the loss of some of the planet’s remaining pristine habitats. 

In the UK, we are seeking to maintain and enhance our food security, growing more of our own food in a way that advances rather than undermines our important environmental goals. We are also striving to be a science superpower, using the world-class expertise in our universities and research institutes to develop and commercialise new technologies that can solve pressing global challenges. 

Given this context, there is a significant opportunity for the Government to position the UK as a global leader in cellular meat. Cellular meat is the production of meat by painlessly harvesting muscle cells from an animal and then nurturing those cells in a growing medium so that they multiply and create muscle tissue. This muscle tissue is biologically the same as the meat people normally eat, however it is not grown on a live animal. 

Cellular meat offers a number of environmental benefits compared to meat from livestock. It uses a much smaller land footprint (around 95% compared to conventional meat), reducing pressure on wild habitats and natural carbon sinks overseas caused by the conversion of forests into farmland. It doesn’t use synthetic fertilisers or pesticides which can have negative impacts on pollinators and other wildlife. There is no slurry or manure from cultured meat either, which is a significant contributor to ammonia emissions in the atmosphere and the pollution of rivers. It would help mitigate climate change too. When produced with renewable energy, cultivated meat could cut the climate impact of meat by 92%

Cultured meat also avoids the rearing and slaughtering of live animals, which would eliminate any animal cruelty from traditional agricultural systems. Many, including me, are comfortable with the idea of killing animals for meat, however Britain’s growing numbers of vegetarians and vegans clearly are not. Cultured meat could be an important source of nutritious protein for these groups, as well as for people who enjoy eating meat but want to cut down in order to reduce their carbon footprint. It would also avoid the use of antibiotics on livestock, which is contributing to antimicrobial resistance. The benefits of this extraordinary technology are not limited to animal protein either - one UK company is developing cultivated palm oil, which will help to reduce pressure on tropical rainforests.  

I understand some in the farming community will worry about this new industry, as a source of further competition at a time when new free trade deals are exposing them to highly efficient agricultural producers in Australia and New Zealand. However, cultured meat doesn’t need to come at the expense of traditional livestock farming, especially the relatively low-emission and extensive livestock production that we have in the UK. In fact, given the booming demand for meat globally, the UK should strive to be a leader in both and to export its high-quality, sustainable meat products around the world. 

The truth is that the UK risks squandering a powerful set of comparative advantages if we don’t support R&D of this new technology and remove the main regulatory barriers. Globally, the value of the cultured meat market has been estimated to be worth between £10.3 billion and £96.6 billion by 2030, which implies a significant increase in the next few years given its current value is around £4.9 million globally. A number of national governments, such as Canada, Israel, and Singapore, are starting to invest in cultured meat. An assessment by the Good Food Institute found that cultured meat can be cost-competitive with some conventional meats by 2030.  

With a regulatory system that can be changed quickly to support innovation due to Brexit, combined with our world-leading science base and our existing businesses focused on plant-based proteins, the UK could capture a sizeable portion of this economic activity and create good-paying jobs in the process. Oxford Economics estimates that the UK cultivated meat market has the potential to add over £2 billion to UK GDP by 2030, with up to £523 million generated in taxation, and between 9,200 and 16,500 jobs supported across the UK. The UK is already the largest market for alternative proteins in Europe and a recent study found that 80% of the British and American public would be likely to try cultivated meat. Our window of opportunity is narrow, however, and so I would like to propose in this essay a number of policies to get the UK on the front foot.

There is significant private capital waiting to invest in this sector, so one of the best things that ministers could do is send a clear signal to the market that Britain wants to be a leader in cultured meat and is a great place for international companies to invest. It could reference its support for the sector in its upcoming food strategy white paper, for instance, as well as identifying it as a priority for the science strategy and for UKRI. The Government could also appoint a food technology champion, similar to the food waste champion, to convene clean meat companies and rally investors. 

Outside the EU, the UK has the opportunity to reform cumbersome regulation holding back investment and innovation in cellular meat. Our current system of regulation, inherited from the EU ‘novel foods regulation’, takes 18 months between the company seeking authorisation and being given permission to start selling the product. It wasn’t designed specifically for cultured meat and its distinct circumstances. Strong food safety regulation in this area is very important, as it will help build consumer confidence in this new product, however it mustn’t be allowed to hold back innovation.

The Government should consult on a new regulatory approvals process, to establish a clear, trusted, and efficient route to market for innovative cultured meat products. The current cumbersome process that the Food Standards Agency has in place creates lengthy delays and uncertainty between a company developing a product and being able to sell it on the market. The option should be provided for producers to consult with regulators ahead of the formal approval process, in order to tackle problems early on and avoid unnecessary delays. 

Given the Government’s target for increasing R&D spending to 2.8% of GDP, there is also an opportunity to channel a portion of that additional funding to this critical new industry. As recommended by Henry Dimbleby in his independent review of the National Food Strategy, this should include support for a new food innovation cluster, which can use agglomerate effects to create a thriving ecosystem of researchers and entrepreneurs. 

Open-access R&D funding can support long-term innovation projects, complementing the private sector innovation that is already taking off. Innovate UK should make available grants to support first-of-their-kind cultured meat projects, to help the industry become established and get the first cultured meat products to market. And the new UK Infrastructure Bank should consider offering concessionary finance, such as loan guarantees, to early cultured meat businesses. The industry to date has relied on venture capital, however for the next stage of its development will need access to patient sources of capital so that it can invest in scaling up production facilities.

Finally, one of the biggest cost pressures on cultured meat producers will be energy, and electricity in particular. To make this cost cheaper, the Government should remove regulatory barriers in the planning and energy systems for cultured meat companies to install on-site solar panels. Similarly, they should push ahead with their proposals in the Heat and Building Strategy to move some of the environmental and social levies off electricity bills and on to gas bills and general taxation. 

Other tax incentives should be considered, such as green super-deduction as called for recently by the Centre for Policy Studies, which would enable cultured meat producers to claim a rebate on green machinery they buy on their Corporation Tax bill. They could also be given an exemption to business rates, to help level the playing field with conventional agriculture.

As the world grapples with how to simultaneously tackle climate change and nature loss, while producing nutritious and affordable food and delivering sustainable economic development, there is little doubt that cultured meat will attract interest from investors, governments, and consumers. Not everyone will choose to purchase these products, and nature-friendly livestock farming will continue to provide nutritious British food and support a thriving countryside. But the Government should not stand in the way of new technologies - cultured meat offers the opportunity to expand consumer choice, further UK leadership in biosciences, and create thousands of well paying British jobs. 

To ensure the UK doesn’t miss out, we need to send a positive market signal to investors, remove cumbersome regulatory barriers and encourage new food technology clusters through R&D support, cheaper clean electricity, and tax incentives for green capital investment. I hope the Government will embrace this opportunity.