Cultured Meat Gaining Attention as Way to Meet Future Demand

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Cultured meat is studied in a lab.

TOKYO (Jiji Press) — Cultured meat is attracting attention in Japan, as global population growth and improvements in living standards push up demand for meat.

Unlike plant-derived meat, including soybean meat, and insect food, cultured meat is made from real meat such as beef, pork and chicken. Also, it can be produced anywhere as long as there is electricity, culture solution and livestock cells, boosting hopes for the product as a new source of protein.

Many issues need to be solved before cultured meat is accepted widely, however, such as overcoming its negative image and formulating distribution rules.

To make lab-grown meat, cells taken from livestock are cultured in bioreactors until they are large enough to be eaten.

Although this is still in the research stage in Japan, Singapore became the first country in the world to approve sales of cultured meat in December 2020 and subsequently started commercial production. Development competition is intensifying around the world, including the United States and European countries.

Demand for meat in 2050 is expected to rise 70% from 2015. According to Japan’s agriculture ministry, the domestic market for cultured meat is projected to reach ¥9 billion in 2050, while the global market is seen reaching ¥700 billion.

The Japanese government is eager to foster cultured meat production as a future growth industry. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry provides financial support for technological development, viewing the business as part of “bio-manufacturing.”

The agriculture ministry, for its part, has set up a public-private council on food technologies in order to support cultured meat production. “The aim is to help [producers] meet food demand while contributing to the economy,” a senior ministry official said.

If a sterile culture plant is built, production of cultured meat does not require farmland and is little affected by external factors such as weather.

NUProtein Co., based in Tokushima, is involved in the development of cultured meat technology. “If the industrialization of cultured meat makes headway and mass production starts, it could lead to regional revitalization by attracting factories to rural areas where vast land plots are available for use,” Masataka Minami, CEO of NUProtein, said.

Megumi Avigail Yoshitomi, representative director of the Japan Association for Cellular Agriculture, which is working on rules for cultured meat, said that if livestock farmers who own meat brands donate cells, there will be a business opportunity for licensing. “In order to help cells and brands in the field of cultured meat to be priced properly, we need a mechanism to ensure that they are not abused,” Yoshitomi said.

It is also essential to improve the public image of cultured meat. According to a survey conducted by major Japanese meatpacker NH Foods Ltd. in November last year, of 324 people aged 20 or older nationwide, 42.9% felt that cultured meat was “less delicious” than conventional meat.

Drawing up rules related to the distribution of lab-grown meat, including those on food labeling and measures for safety, has been taking time. “Businesses can’t start mass production unless the government shows its policy,” Yoshitomi said. “But the government wants businesses to be fully prepared for mass production first, leaving their talks going in circles.”

Overseas, by contrast, discussions on the issues have made progress. If the situation is left unattended, Japan may end up having to accept the outcome of discussions led by the United States and Europe.

“Japan is three to four years behind the rest of the world in the distribution of cultured meat,” Minami said. More efforts are needed before cultured meat, dubbed “meat for a new era,” is served on domestic dining tables.