Will insects, lab-grown meat replace traditional farmed meat?

·Senior Reporter
·6 min read
Cell-based shrimps from Shiok Meats; pictured next to cooked insects on a skewer at a street stall. (PHOTO: Shiok Meats, Getty Images)
Cell-based shrimps from Shiok Meats; pictured next to cooked insects on a skewer at a street stall. (PHOTO: Shiok Meats, Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — Imagine a day when supermarket aisles stock a large selection of cell-based or plant-based meat while maintaining a limited selection of farmed meat. 

Some entrepreneurs, such as the co-founder and chief executive (CEO) of Shiok Meats Dr Sandhya Sriram, dream of such a scenario and are taking bold steps to make this a reality. 

"So our vision is that you as a consumer walk into a supermarket in the coming years, and you go to the frozen section to buy your meat and seafood. And you see a whole aisle of cell-based protein, and other aisle of plant-based protein, and probably a very small aisle, a very small shelf, of traditionally-farmed meat and seafood," said Sriram, a stem-cell biologist by training. 

Eventually though, Sriram hopes that "it will be plant-based and cell-based all the way so that we can see more animals outside".

Shiok Meats uses cell-based technology to produce and cultivate meat from the stem cells of live animals. The cells are the placed in bio-reactors, and together with nutrients and the right conditions, they propagate. About after four to six weeks, the stem cells will be converted into consumable meat, with the same look, taste, smell and even texture of the meat consumers are used to.

Dr Sandhya Sriram, co-founder and CEO of Shiok Meats, a firm which uses cell-based technology to produce and cultivate meat from the stem cells of live animals. (PHOTO: Yahoo Southeast Asia)
Dr Sandhya Sriram, co-founder and CEO of Shiok Meats, a firm which uses cell-based technology to produce and cultivate meat from the stem cells of live animals. (PHOTO: Yahoo Southeast Asia)

Sriram sees her firm as a sustainable solution to the world's growing need for protein, and meeting an increasing demand for seafood without putting extra pressure on the environment.

"We have depleted 70 per cent of the animals in the oceans by consuming them. Currently, 80 per cent of the shrimps that we eat are actually farmed and not from the ocean."

But traditional farming comes with its own set of problems, such as depleting land use or causing overcrowding of farm animals, which results in diseases and over-usage of antibiotics.

"We really need to find a different technology to still have our meat and seafood, but without harming animals and the earth," she said. 

Shiok Meats has unveiled its shrimp, lobster and crab meat options, and is looking into other types of seafood, such as crayfish. 

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Complement rather than replace: Experts 

Two experts who also spoke to Yahoo News Singapore took a more balanced view. They say that alternative meats should seek to complement traditionally produced meat, rather than replace the latter, taking into accounts factors such as livelihoods and ingrained consumer habits.

Director of Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) Food Science Technology Programme William Chen thinks it is "unrealistic" for alternative meat sources to replace farmed meat.

"There are bound to be consumers who refuse to be vegetarian. There are bound to be consumers who are vegetarian who refuse to eat meat," said Prof Chen.

Professor William Chen from NTU’s School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering shares his view on the total replacement of traditional farmed meat with alternative meats. (PHOTO: Yahoo Southeast)
Professor William Chen from NTU’s School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering shares his view on the total replacement of traditional farmed meat with alternative meats. (PHOTO: Yahoo Southeast)

The professor from NTU's School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering pointed out that a number of people still rely on traditional farming to earn a living.

"So, if you want to introduce (alternative meats) as total replacements, it's very disruptive. And we are not ready yet. Because the cost is not there. The taste is not there."

The cost of cultivating meat in laboratories, Prof Chen added, is also currently exorbitant due to the fetal bovine serum used to produce the meat. The serum, extracted from calf foetuses, costs approximately US$2,000 per litre. The serum is taken from an unborn calf in the womb which is later killed, presenting ethical issues.

"If we want to promote increased consumer buying of these novel food, taste is one thing, second is cost. So, as the saying goes: taste is king, price is queen," Prof Chen said.

Likewise, Singapore Institute of Technology's (SIT) Associate Professor Wang Mei Yin said that the traditional meat sector still "vastly outpaces" the alternative meat sector. 

The programme leader for Food Technology does not expect consumers or producers to forgo meat entirely, with the industry simply meeting the needs of a "broad cross section of consumers". 

SIT uses applied research for the development of alternative proteins as viable food ingredients, as well as the formulation of tasty food products based on alternative proteins. Its students have made spirulina chicken which comprises pea protein, and Vegan Chili Crab Pie which is made from textured vegetable protein.  

Bugs as food?

Another possible source of protein that is already available is insects – a food source already consumed in some Southeast Asian markets. There is at least one company seeking to make insects an alternative and viable protein source in Singapore. 

Asia Insect Farm Solutions co-founder Yuvanesh Tamil Selvan told Yahoo News Singapore that his company had never advocated for insects to be a replacement for meat. The firm, which has insect farms in Thailand, aims to produce insect-based food products for commercial consumption here. It currently produces cricket protein powder, which can be used in baking.

"People have been eating insects, alongside meat traditionally... We want to reintroduce insects into diets in certain locales and at the same time, offer people an option," said Yuvanesh.

Yuvanesh Tamil Selvan, co-founder of Asia Insect Farm Solutions, a company that seeks to make insects an alternative and viable protein source in Singapore. (PHOTO: Yahoo Southeast Asia)
Yuvanesh Tamil Selvan, co-founder of Asia Insect Farm Solutions, a company that seeks to make insects an alternative and viable protein source in Singapore. (PHOTO: Yahoo Southeast Asia)

The co-founder told us that insects actually can have a nutritional profile that is comparable with meats, and could even excel in certain aspects. 

"Typically, crickets have a nutritional profile where they've got 70 per cent protein by mass. So, for every 100g, you get about 70g of protein. That is two to three times more than chicken, beef or pork," he said. 

That said, insects can act as a complement to contribute to the texture and taste of a dish. For instance, mealworms or buffalo worms are said to taste like bacon when fried due to their high fat content. 

"As great as insects are in terms of protein content, there are also downsides and they not going to replicate that meat-like texture... but insects work well in other kinds of food products... (such as) high protein, healthy cookies," Yuvanesh said.

Future of alternative meats still uncertain

Prof Wang pointed out that while insects may be a sustainable source of protein, consumer acceptance is key for insects to be regarded as a viable alternative source of protein. There are also regulatory barriers to overcome, she added. 

It may still be some time before we see more alternative meat options hit the shelves. AIFS' products are still undergoing evaluation by the authorities, while Shiok Meats is only looking to have its shrimp and lobster products in supermarkets in the next few years. 

Watch several members of the Yahoo team try a meatless dinner with alternative proteins:

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