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A vegan climate activist holds a toy chicken during a protest during the COP27 climate summit, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Nov. 18.MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/Reuters

Sylvain Charlebois is a professor of food distribution and policy and the director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) just authorized the sale of cultivated chicken in the United States, giving a safety approval for human consumption to Upside Foods, a San Francisco-based startup. The company produces meat grown from animal cells, without killing a single animal.

While the product cannot be commercially sold until the United States Department of Agriculture gives its own approval, that is likely a formality. The most significant hurdle was the FDA, which means the day we see lab-grown chicken on the market in the United States is within sight.

In Canada, though, with our beloved production quota system that essentially amounts to a cartel, chicken farmers will have something to say about that. They potentially face a competitor with cost advantages and lower disease risks, and which could boast of its humane methods and sustainability. Let the lobbying games begin.

The production process behind lab-grown meat is not that complex, though the science behind it certainly is. It starts by taking a sample of primary cells from a live chicken or fertilized egg. The cells are “fed” in a lab with amino acids, fatty acids, sugars, trace elements, salts and vitamins. The main distinction between feeding a live animal versus feeding cells is the size of the feed components; that’s it.

After three weeks, voilà. The product is ready to be packed, shipped and sold. The product can be designed to suit different tastes and nutritional needs. We can cultivate wings, legs or breasts, depending on market demand – but make no mistake, this is not fake meat. Those condemning cultivated meat as phony simply don’t understand the science. Unlike traditional methods, cells are simply reproduced in a clean, sanitary lab environment, and that process comes with significant advantages.

The cost to produce a kilo of chicken in a lab remains unclear. But the economics of cultured meat production are more predictable, the production cycle is shorter and is less prone to food-safety issues. Animal diseases such as avian flu, which is currently costing a fortune to the poultry industry and consumers, can also be avoided. Risks are much easier to contain.

There are hundreds of companies that are developing lab-grown food in the United States, and more than a dozen in Canada. Most of these initiatives are funded by investors who have barely any experience in agriculture, and their way of thinking is not skewed by biases in favour of traditional farming. They just see food differently, and meat giants are forced to investigate the edge lab-grown food may have in the production of animal proteins.

The Upside Foods story is a good example. The company started back in 2015, which is ancient history in this field. The first series of funding included Bill Gates, Cargill, Tyson Foods and British entrepreneur Richard Branson. Whole Foods came aboard as an investor in 2020. While both Tyson and Cargill are among the largest meat packers in the world, many influential investors have believed in the technology for a few years now. Upside Foods just acquired Cultured Decadence, a cultivated-seafood company, for US$400-million. A company can only raise that amount of money if the technology has some serious scientific traction.

The science is still unclear as to whether cultivated meat is healthier, but the possibilities are endless. Healthier meat can literally be designed based around consumer wants and needs.

If you think eating cultured meat would be disgusting, chances are you’re over 45. In a recent survey by our lab, 27 per cent of Canadians would try lab-grown food. But that percentage almost triples for millennials and other younger generations, simply because they see these proteins as more sustainable and more humane. It is estimated that a third of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions come from food production, and some advocate for different ways to produce animal proteins. Furthermore, the UN has warned the world of the risk of maintaining highly concentrated animal feeding to prevent future pandemics. These risks are real.

Seeing cultivated chicken being sold commercially is only a matter of time. One can only assume that our well-established, highly resourceful poultry sector will not be looking forward to that day.

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