A meatball grown from mammoth proteins made an impression on the media — but what does it mean for the environment?

A giant meatball made headlines all around the globe last month after an Australian company succeeded in creating lab-grown woolly mammoth meat. The cultivated meat company Vow produced the giant mammoth meatball as a “stunt”, unveiling it at the science museum Nemo in Amsterdam. It promptly went viral.

The media response was largely positive — kickstarted by a triumphant Guardian exclusive — but there were plenty of eyebrow raises and Jurassic Park references too.

While the news cycle revelled in the drama and the danger of the ‘prehistoric protein’, one unanswered question has left a resounding echo in the quieting aftermath: What does it all actually mean for the environment?

The giant mammoth meatball — gain or gimmick?

One of the most significant aspects of this experiment missed by the press was not the ‘mammoth’ but the ‘giant’ part of the giant mammoth meatball.

The meatball has been described as “the size of a small cantaloupe” and is thus one of the biggest lab-grown meat products ever produced. It’s a huge milestone for the cultivated meat industry.

Cultivated meat, also known as cultured meat or lab-grown meat, is meat grown from animal stem cells fed with amino acids and carbohydrates.

These meats — identical at the molecular level to cuts from reared and butchered livestock — have been rocking the boat of the meat consumption debate for over two decades.

Yet, in all that time, the industry has had a slow and up-hill battle to become a viable competitor to farmed meats — in large part due to problems of scalability both in product and production.

That’s despite the fact that it would be a more efficient meat source than traditional livestock farming, using less land and water and emitting fewer greenhouse gases, according to a study conducted by the Good Food Institute.

If production centres are run on renewable energy, cultivated meat producers could even offer a path to environmentally neutral animal proteins. That’s a far cry from the 18% of global greenhouse gases currently accounted for by animal agriculture (IAPWA).

Any PR is good PR…

However, while a survey last year found that a third of the British public would try cultured meat, globally there’s still a lot of resistance to the idea.

Only days after the mammoth meatball, Italy announced it would be passing a bill to ban cultured meat in order to “safeguard the nation’s heritage”. In fact, despite the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) recent declarations that lab-grown meat is safe to eat, only Singapore legally allows its sale to consumers.

A cultural shift is needed for cultivated meat to take off — and that is exactly what seems to have inspired Vow’s PR team with the giant mammoth meatball.

George Peppou, Vow’s CEO, told Green Queen: “We needed to do something so outrageous that it would break through into mainstream media.

“The mammoth meatball project has been covered extensively, and has a whole new cohort of people talking about whether or not they would eat cultured meat.”

The stunt did get people talking — especially the kinds of people private companies love to hear from.

“The investors looking into this field loved it. From a commercial perspective, this project was a resounding success,” an industry insider told The Climate.

Yet there is a concern that while it may have raised the profile of the industry, the spotlight has fallen on the wrong thing.

“It could leave the general impression that everyone is doing weird animals in cultivated meat — like Frankenstein Meats.”

The Climate spoke to Dr Ricardo Gouveia, a researcher in Tissue Engineering at Newcastle University and clinical researcher for 3D Bio-Tissues (3DBT).

3DBT cultivated the first ever lab-grown pork steak earlier this year. Despite arguably having a more practical application for the industry, it was met with significantly less acclaim than the mammoth meatball.

He clarified that the views expressed here are his own as a specialist and not as a representative of the company or university.

“What worries me is how this could potentially be a viral meme. It might plant a bad seed among the general public that could turn into bitter fruit in the future.

“The majority of the population sits on the fence and are sceptical [about cultured meat]. But they’re willing to try it if the conditions are right. Those conditions are: it’s safe, it’s tasty, it’s affordable and has nutritional value.”

Dr Gouveia worries that this silent majority could be put off by PR stunts like this, which give an impression of exoticism and rarity to an industry that is trying to present itself as a more environmentally friendly route to what is still a major part of most people’s diets.

“It could leave the general impression that everyone is doing weird animals in cultivated meat — like Frankenstein Meats,” he said.

“It’s important to show the power of this technology, but no one’s going to be doing this kind of stuff [for the commercial market] in the near future.”

Cultivating rare meats for animal conservation

Yet there is an argument to be made here that making “weird” meats could play a significant role in preserving animal populations and biodiversity.

Vow claimed they’d chosen the woolly mammoth “because it’s a symbol of diversity loss and a symbol of climate change”.

Many endangered animals are still being served up as delicatessen and expensive rarities across the world, from Pangolin foetus to turtle meat soup. If it were possible to offer up lab-grown alternatives, could this save animal species from devastation?

Dr Guiveia agreed: “If you can do this with extinct animals, you can do it with animals that are facing extinction and in that way protect animals from predatory behaviour. I think maybe that’s what Vow is trying to do.”

A significant portion of the mammoth meat in Vow’s meatball is modelled upon its modern ancestor, the elephant. Elephant meat had a going rate of $6,000 per elephant when last recorded in 2007 — a figure that’s likely to have risen as animal protection laws tighten and elephants become increasingly scarce.

These may seem like morbid scales to weigh up. It would be better to discourage people from consuming these types of meats altogether — not least because of the increased risk of diseases adapting to human bodies through consumption of bushmeat, rare animals and the use of wet markets to trade in them.

But perhaps the biggest success of the mammoth meatball stunt has been to make people consider the possible scope of cultivated meats.

Beyond beef steaks and chicken nuggets, it could have the capacity to take the wind out of the sails of illegal animal trading and wet markets.

Equally, cultivated fish meat — a vastly underexplored niche of the industry — could offer some much needed respite to that most devastated of natural habitats — our oceans.

The meatball made with woolly mammoth DNA was unveiled at a museum in the Netherlands this week (Image by studio aico).

Health and safety: Making mammoths of molehills

Nevertheless, the mammoth meatball has given rise to a number of queasy questions, not least: what happens if we eat it?

The “prehistoric” meat was created using open source DNA sequences provided by the University of Queensland. Gaps in the sequences were filled with elephant DNA.

Professor Ernst Wolvetang said that no one would be able to try the mammoth meatball because “we have no idea how our immune system would react when we eat it”.

Dr Gouveia argued that this cast a bad light on the industry, which is held to extremely strict regulations and food standards.

Since mammoth was “on the menu” for our ancestors and is quite similar to elephant, he reckons “it’s very hard to believe that this kind of protein would have any kind of impact on the human immune response”.

Indeed, as Dr Gouveia somewhat anticlimactically revealed, the mammoth meatball doesn’t even contain a whole lot of mammoth.

“Scientifically speaking, it’s more of a sheep meatball,” he said with a chuckle, “and then it contains a protein that has similarities to a woolly mammoth protein.”

But the industry as a whole is kept to very high regulatory standards, according to Dr Gouveia, and he reckons it is actually healthier than farmed meat as they do not use antibiotics, and have more control over the sterility of the production.

“The biggest concern for environmentalists is the simple fact that currently, cultivated meat isn’t very environmentally friendly.”

He added: “Cultivated meat is supposed to recreate real meat, not a weird cocktail of ingredients that simulate meat. So, if meat is healthy for you, cultivated meat should be too.”

Asked if he would try the mammoth meatball, Dr Gouveia pointed out that as regulation currently stands, it would be illegal for him to do so.

“But if I was working on the project, and allowed to try it, I would,” he said, “though I suspect it would taste a lot like sheep.”

Some cultivated caveats

Lab-grown meat is still a little way from hitting supermarket shelves, especially in the UK.

Besides high production cost — around $17 for a pound of meat, according to researcher David Humbird — current regulation, public opinion and the animal farming sector all present obstacles to the cultivated meat industry.

The biggest concern for environmentalists is the simple fact that, currently, cultivated meat isn’t very environmentally friendly.

Though it produces less methane than belching bovines, it’s an energy intensive process responsible for a large amount of greenhouse gases — notably carbon dioxide — in its own right. An Oxford Study found that replacing agricultural cattle like-for-like with lab-grown meat may in fact result in more global warming due to the types of gases released.

So, even in a world where lab-grown meats are increasingly likely to hit the mainstream, we are still better off cutting out or cutting down our meat consumption. As with most solutions to the climate crisis, it seems the simplest remains the most effective.