In its June 2020 Food Outlook Report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) stated that world meat output was set to contract row to 333 million tonnes, 1.7% less than in 2019. The disruption has been caused mainly by Covid-19, but it has added to already widespread fears about zoonotic diseases, especially African swine fever and highly pathogenic avian influenza.

This provides an opportunity for the alternative meat industry. According to a Nielsen report from May this year, the sale of plant-based meats, which have been available in retail outlets and restaurants since 2018, grew by 264% in the US over a nine-week period that ended May 2. The market for alternative proteins was growing even before the pandemic: in a 2019 report, Barclays predicted that alternative meat could capture 10% of the $1.4-trillion global meat market over the next decade. But while plant-based meats were finding more and more favour, commercial availability of lab-grown meat (or cultured meat) was still many years in the future.

This is why the approval by Singapore to cultured chicken is seen as significant.

How is lab-grown or cultured meat different from plant-based meat? The latter is made from plant sources such as soy or pea protein, while cultured meat is grown directly from cells in a laboratory. Both have the same objective: to offer alternatives to traditional meat products that could feed a lot more people, reduce the threat of zoonotic diseases, and mitigate the environmental impact of meat consumption.

In terms of cellular structure, cultured or cultivated meat is the same as conventional meat — except that cultured meat does not come directly from animals.

According to the Good Food Institute (GFI)’s 2019 State of the Industry Report on cultivated meats, compared to conventional beef, cultivated beef could reduce land use by more than 95%, climate change emissions by 74-87% and nutrient pollution by 94%.

The report adds that since cultivated meat is created in clean facilities, the risk of contamination by pathogens such as salmonella and E coli, which may be present in traditional slaughterhouses and meat-packing factories, is significantly reduced. It does not require antibiotics either, unlike animals raised for meat, thereby reducing the threat posed to public health by growing antibiotic resistance.

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