Just’s Associate Director of Cellular Agriculture Vitor Espirito Santo and VP of Product Development Chris Jones Image Credit: Just

Dubai: Would you eat a slice of beef if you knew it came from a lab, rather than a butcher?

What if it was also cheaper than your usual beef and tasted just the same? That is precisely what Just, a food technology company based in California, is trying to produce — lab-grown meat.

It may sound like an alien idea but a growing number of companies is growing meat in labs in an effort to create what they believe is a more sustainable supply of food. At Just, you can also expect plant-based eggs.

Here’s how you would make eggs without using any animals. After extensive research into plants across the world, Just discovered that mung beans, when processed and tossed in a pan, scramble like real eggs. Yellow, chunky, even vegan, and apparently, with the same taste as farm-produced eggs.

At the end of the day, if it tastes better, it makes you feel better, and it’s more affordable, that’s what you’re going to buy.

- Joshua Tetrick, Co-founder and chief executive officer of Just

Joshua Tetrick, co-founder and chief executive officer of Just, promises that “you won’t be able to tell the difference” between the company’s eggs and meat, and the traditional ones.

As for the meat, it is sourced from animals but without a need to slaughter any.

Just takes a single cell from an animal (be it chickens or cows), feeds it nutrients in a lab, and lets it grow to eventually become raw meat. The nutrients are a proprietary mix of sugars, salts, and amino acids, among others, the company said.

Just’s eggs are sold across the US in liquid form in a bottle, and are already approved by the country’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The meat is yet to be approved, with the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture now working together on a regulatory framework for lab-grown meats across the states.

Selling point

So why exactly does Tetrick believe people will put down their Wagyu steak and their Spanish omelette in favour of food prepared in a lab? “At the end of the day, if it tastes better, it makes you feel better, and it’s more affordable, that’s what you’re going to buy,” Tetrick told Gulf News in an interview.

“Remember, the meat that we’re making is not vegan; it’s real meat. We didn’t need to kill animals, and it’s much better for the environment, but it’s not vegan,” Tetrick added. “The product is actually real meat — it’s just a process that we use where we take a cell from an animal … and the end product is a real hamburger or real chicken.”

And for Just, the shift in consumption trends away from traditional meat and eggs is urgent because of what is currently an “unsustainable” supply chain of food, as Tetrick describes it.

Cow-free burgers Image Credit: Gulf News

Food security

“Our food system ends up polluting our drinking sources, it ends up degrading our ocean ecosystem, causing significant biodiversity loss. Many of the hundreds of millions of acres of soy and corn that end up feeding the animals we eat have to be planted out after we plough down the rainforest.”

In the UAE, the issue is particularly significant. The country currently imports about 90 per cent of its food, with water supply scarce and not much arable land. In January 2019, Mariam Al Muhairi, the UAE’s minister of state for food security, told Gulf News the government is looking at a domestic production level of over 100,000 tonnes by 2021 in line with the National Food Security Strategy 2051.

Just sees those concerns on food security as an opportunity to produce lab-made meat here in the region rather than rely on imports from other countries.

And it’s not alone.

At this year’s edition of Gulfood, the food and beverage exhibition, wellness and sustainability were key trends, with exhibitors looking at ethical products and health to drive sales.

Companies such as Global Food Industries were highlighting their plant-based burgers made from peas, kale, and quinoa. But there wasn’t much mention of lab-grown meat.

Just’s Tetrick said the company hopes to start selling in the Gulf region before the end of 2019. The meat will be launched in two to four months in the US, and is expected to be priced lower than traditional meat.

Presence in Gulf

“I want our company to set up operations here [in the Gulf],” Tetrick said, adding that Just is in talks with a “handful” of manufacturers now about partnering, and is assessing options in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain.

“I’m hoping in the next three to six months, we would decide where our home’s going to be. I’d like to make one of the countries in the GCC really a hub for our operations,” he said.

Just already sells its eggs across the United States in retail chains and it supplies to hotel chains, diners, and university cafés. The company has over 100,000 points of distribution, Tetrick said, including international points in Hong Kong and Singapore.

“We have to figure out a way to make the food system healthier, better, and more sustainable. It just has to be figured out because of food security, because so many people aren’t eating well,” he said.