Swiss meat giant Bell invests in synthetic meat startup

Switzerland's largest meat producer Bell Food Group has invested €7.5 million into the Dutch company that produced the first hamburger produced through cell tissue rather than slaughter.

Swiss meat giant Bell invests in synthetic meat startup
Mosa Meat's lab facilities. Photo: Mosa Meat.

Meet the meat of the future, produced from animal cells rather than slaughter. Cultured meat, or synthetic meat, uses tissue engineering similar to techniques used in regenerative medicine, instead of the traditional method of raising livestock for slaughter.

Now Switzerland's largest meat producer has taken a substantial stake in the Dutch startup Mosa Meat, who produced the world's first synthetic hamburger in 2013, with a view to maintaining its market position, albeit through a far more sustainable technology. 

“Meat demand is soaring and in the future won’t be met by livestock agriculture alone,” said Lorenz Wyss, CEO of Bell Food Group, in a statement. “We believe this technology can become a true alternative for environment-conscious consumers, and we are delighted to bring our know-how and expertise of the meat business into this strategic partnership with Mosa Meat.”

Mosa Meat's CEO Peter Verstrate (left) and CSO Mark Post (right) in the lab at Maastricht University. Photo: Mosa Meat.

The €7.5 million investment will help Mosa Meat, a spin off company from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, prepare the company to construct its first production plant – with a view to introducing “premium products” to the market by 2021. 

“This investment by Bell Food Group is a significant step in helping us bring our products to market. BFG is the leading meat processor in Switzerland and has operations across Europe. We plan to introduce our first product in Europe, so this is a very important strategic partnership,” Sarah Lucas, Mosa Meat's head of strategy and communications, told The Local. 

“Switzerland is certainly a market we aim to target,” she added. 

The company's first production plant is scheduled to be operational in 2021, added Lucas. 

A rendition of what a cultured meat factory may look like in the future. Photo: Chris Whiteside. 

“From one sample from a cow, we can produce 800 million strands of muscle tissue (enough to make 80,000 quarter pounders),” claims Mosa Meat on its website in a post that explains the technology. 

“The process of making cultured meat (also known as clean meat) is similar to making livestock meat, except the cells grow outside the animal’s body. The cells are placed in a medium containing nutrients and naturally-occurring growth factors, and allowed to proliferate just as they would inside an animal,” adds Mosa Meat's post. 

With demand for meat growing in tandem with the world's population – and many environmental hazards linked to livestock – synthetic meat could soon come to hold its own place on supermarket shelves worldwide. 

“Replacing traditional meat production with cultured meat would have a huge impact on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, it would free up a large amount of resources that are now used for meat production worldwide and will completely disrupt an old-established and currently unsustainable industry,” said Alexander Hoffmann, Principal at M Ventures, which led the round of funding for Mosa Meat. 

Cell-based meat has its supporters and detractors. 

“In my view, these initiatives are aimed at prolonging the West’s excessive consumption of meat, rather than genuine attempts to deal with the problems they claim to solve,” Oron Catts, director of SymbioticA, wrote in The Conversation. 

Others however have praised the technology for its ability to circumnavigate problems linked with traditional meat production.

“Besides winning the favour of animal rights activists for its humane production of meat, in vitro (ED: another name for synthetic) meat production system also circumvents many of the issues associated with conventional meat production systems, like excessively brutal slaughter of food animals, nutrition-related diseases, foodborne illnesses, resource use, antibiotic-resistant pathogen strains, and massive emissions of methane that contribute to global warming,” argues a paper published by Science Direct. 

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Will Switzerland be able to feed itself in the future?

Amid a worsening climate crisis and an increasingly unstable world food system, Clare O’Dea looks at what Switzerland and its population need to do to ensure there is enough food on the table in the years to come.

Will Switzerland be able to feed itself in the future?

Faced with a growing global population, the climate crisis and increasingly degraded agricultural land, the challenge of how to feed the world in the near future is one of the burning issues of the day. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created a multitude of additional food security problems, contributing to already rising global food prices and rising input costs for agriculture, such as energy and fertilisers. 

Meanwhile, Switzerland’s food self-sufficiency rate is relatively low for Europe at around 50 per cent. The government’s new agriculture strategy for 2050 has set the seemingly modest goal of maintaining that level.

The 79-page strategy document, like most such publications, does not look beyond 2050. But this is just the point when climate change and increasing demand for food are expected to intensify.

Should we be alarmed?

One thing the Covid-19 pandemic showed was that not all countries are equally affected by a global crisis. Money is usually the main protection against disaster, but leadership, preparedness, and the ability and willingness to respond quickly are also important. 

For domestic food production over the next two to three decades, hope still rests on two main pillars – boosting productivity in a sustainable way, and changing consumer behaviour. There’s not much else that can be done. 

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The bad news is that the Swiss population is not eating a well-balanced diet and the average intake of calories is too high.

People are not eating enough dairy products, pulses, fruit and vegetables and consuming too much meat, sweet things and alcohol. 

We all know this.

But did you know how harmful this love affair with our stomachs is? The strategy document spells it out: “The environmental impact of consumption could be halved if people adopted a healthy diet, based on the nutritional recommendations.”

With a different portfolio of food grown in Switzerland corresponding to a healthier diet, the self-sufficiency rate would increase too. Consumer behaviour is changing but not radically or quickly enough. It’s hard to see the harm being reduced without enforced measures of some kind. 

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Another crying shame of our food system and lifestyle is that a third of the food produced by farmers ends up being wasted between field and fork. All that energy, money and ecological impact for nothing. 

Although food self-sufficiency carries its own risks – vulnerability to local shocks, extra pressure on the environment – being too reliant on imports is not ideal. Overall, the EU is a net food exporter. But the Swiss government has made it clear that Switzerland will continue to rely significantly on imports for the foreseeable future. 

One simple reason is the limited availability of agricultural land. Currently 36 per cent of Switzerland’s land surface is given over to agricultural production and pasture. Farmers have to compete with growing urbanisation and, of course, the non-negotiable presence of the mountains that cover 60 per cent of the land’s surface.

During the Covid-19 pandemic we saw that money can, up to a point, buy you health. Switzerland nabbed so many of the globally available vaccines that it has had to donate or destroy surplus. Money can also buy you food, and this, along with proximity to supply, puts Switzerland is a rather secure position. 

In fact, Switzerland came fifth out of 113 countries in the Global Food Security Index which considers the issues of food affordability, availability and quality, as well as natural resource and resilience. By which we could conclude that everything is under control. 

The victims of this year’s global food crisis – the 323 million people who will become acutely food insecure, according to the UN – live in the countries that routinely appear at the bottom of such indexes. 

Nevertheless, according to the Swiss agricultural research body Agroscope, we should not feel a false sense of security. Apart from dependence on foreign countries and climate change, power supply is one of the key threats to Swiss food supply. 

In its latest annual assessment of threats to food supply, Agroscope wrote that the probability of and the potential damage from a serious power shortage are particularly high compared to other risks. “Supplies of vital foodstuffs would be massively affected, the effects would be manifold, and would not be overcome quickly.”

If the worst comes to the worst, Switzerland stockpiles compulsory stocks of essential goods for bridging in case of crisis and shortages. Mandatory storage facilities around the country hold three to four months’ worth of basic foodstuffs like sugar, rice, cooking oils, cereals and animal feed. 

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Is that reassuring? Three months doesn’t feel like a lot.

These stocks are only released when the economy itself is no longer able to satisfy demand. In any case, Agroscope says “household emergency stocks are of great importance”.

I don’t know about you, but I’m off to the supermarket.