Skip to main content

In November 2023, Italy became the first European country to ban cultivated meat – a strange decision, given that cultivated meat is not currently sold in Europe. Then, in January, Italy effectively called for the EU to introduce a Europe-wide ban. Such a move could be costly: although cultivated meat is not yet sold at scale, the industry may be worth $100 billion globally by 2040. But others’ loss can be our gain; instead of following Italy’s restrictive approach, the UK should boost its cultivated meat industry. 

Cultivated meat is developed from animal cells and grows from amino acids. The process occurs in a facility that looks like a brewery. It differs from other alternative proteins, including plant-based (e.g. Beyond Burger) or fermentation-made products (e.g. Quorn) which do not contain animal cells and currently struggle to compete on taste with conventional meat. 

Such ‘lab-grown’ meat proves more environmentally friendly than conventional meat, with a carbon footprint up to four times smaller. Additionally, cultivated meat does not require the killing of animals. The number of factory farms in the UK has grown from none in 2000 to over 1,400, accounting for a total of 1.71 billion animals. These concerns have resonated with British consumers, with three-fifths of the public attempting to reduce their meat consumption.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the cultivated meat industry is on the rise. Health agencies in Singapore, Israel, and the US have all deemed different cultivated meat products safe for consumption. Since the first cultivated meat burger sold for over $300,000 in 2013, production costs have fallen by up to 99% and could reach parity with conventional meat by 2030. The UK can, and should, take full advantage of this growing industry.

Indeed, the UK already has a head start. British cultivated meat firms received more private investment in 2022 (£61 million) than the rest of Europe combined. British firms benefit from a large potential market, with alternative protein sales exceeding one billion pounds, and with over 30 British universities sponsoring research in alternative protein. The Government, too, is waking up to the opportunities, and has invested £12 million in a cultivated meat hub at the University of Bath. The UK’s comparative advantage would only grow if the EU outlaws its 36 cultivated meat companies

Whilst the cultivated meat industry could be highly profitable, there are concerns about its impact on job displacement in the agricultural sector. Media reports of potential job losses in the UK have ranged from 440,000 to 1.5 million. In reality, the study that the reports refer to actually examined the US – a net beef exporter, unlike the UK. Yet, even for the US, the study suggested that job gains would likely balance out losses. 

Furthermore, research by Oxford Economics estimates that, by 2030, the cultivated-meat industry could create between 9,200 and 16,500 skilled jobs in the UK, contributing between £1.1 and £2.1 billion to the economy. Furthermore, beef farmers may not be worse off: cultivated meat could increase the premium for pasture-reared produce, a point which UK farmers bring up in interviews

To place itself at the forefront of this growth potential, there are several policy options for the next UK government.

The first is to continue cutting red tape. For firms, complying with regulation inherited from the EU can run them into the hundreds of thousands of pounds of losses and risks styming UK innovation. Thankfully, the UK has inched closer to relieving this extortionate regulatory burden. In March 2024, the Food Standards Agency agreed to modernise its regulations and shorten approval waiting times by around six months, from two and a half to two years. Alas, approval times in Singapore only take three to six months. When the Food Standards Agency details further reforms over the summer, it should adopt a ‘British innovation principle’: where health and environmental benefits are considered on a case-by-case basis alongside safety to speed up approval times. 

Second, the next government should develop a more coherent national plan for developing alternative proteins. From 2012 to 2022, the UK invested £43 million in R&D for the alternative-protein industry. However, spending crisscrosses 3 departments – unlike other strategic technologies, such as computing, there is no central direction. The government should work with scientists, farmers and industry-experts to create a plan for boosting UK innovation in cultivated-meat. 

The cultivated meat industry can make for a juicy opportunity for the UK. By cutting red tape and creating a national plan for alternative proteins, the UK can tap into significant economic benefits, create thousands of skilled jobs and meet consumer demand for more sustainable and ethical meat production.

 

Charlie Harrison is a student at University College London.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

[Image: DyrElena]