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A new kind of meat grown from animal cells is on the menu at COP27

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Food and Drug Administration has taken a first step towards allowing, for the first time ever, a new kind of meat to be sold in the U.S. It is called cultivated meat, and it is grown directly from animal cells without slaughtering animals. People gathering at the U.N. climate conference in Egypt this week are getting a taste of this new product, which is being touted as a climate-friendly alternative. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: When it comes to climate change solutions, there's a lot of focus on the food system. That's because about one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions come from food production, many directly from meat.

JOSHUA MARCH: I'm Joshua March, co-founder and CEO here at SCiFi Foods.

AUBREY: SCiFi Foods is one of more than 50 startups staking a future in cultivated meat. March is developing an alternative to the traditional burger because, he says, beef has a big environmental footprint.

MARCH: It's responsible for a huge amount of methane emissions, which is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, deforestation of the rainforest.

AUBREY: Trees are cut down to create pasture to graze cattle. Land is needed to grow grain to feed the animals. And climate scientists warn that it's nearly impossible to meet climate goals without changing agriculture. March says telling people to eat less meat won't work. Global demand for animal protein is on the rise, and burgers are one of Americans' favorite foods. But he thinks there may be a growing appetite for an alternative.

MARCH: If you go to most people and say, wouldn't it be amazing if we could produce real meat but do it without the need to kill an animal and without the need to cut down the rainforests and all the other stuff that comes with it, most people will say, like, yeah, that would be amazing. And that's what we're doing.

AUBREY: That's what they aim to do. Cultivated meat is not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but over the last few years, companies have forged ahead. They've raised hundreds of millions of dollars for research and development. One of the first startups in the space, called GOOD Meat, is much further along. Here's GOOD Meat's Andrew Noyes.

ANDREW NOYES: We're the only company in the world that has regulatory approval to sell anywhere in the world, and that is in Singapore.

AUBREY: They made headlines a couple of years ago when they began to sell cultivated chicken in a restaurant in Singapore. And GOOD Meat is serving up its chicken at the climate conference this week in Egypt, making a case that could be good for the environment. One of the first questions people ask before trying it is, exactly how do you grow meat? We took a tour of their production facility near San Francisco.

PETER CZERPAK: Welcome to GOOD Meat's pilot plant building. We've been finishing up the construction and commissioning.

AUBREY: GOOD Meat's Peter Czerpak walks us into a space that looks like a brewery. It's filled with big, shiny, stainless-steel tanks.

CZERPAK: The one on the right is 3,500 liters.

AUBREY: It stretches from floor to ceiling. This is where the process starts. They've extracted a bunch of cells from chickens. Now they need to feed these cells a mix of proteins, fats and carbohydrates - same things the cells would get if they were in an animal's body.

CZERPAK: You can also add some nutrients as they're slowly growing. Just like all of us, if you need a snack in the middle of the day, sometimes the cells may need a snack as well.

AUBREY: The feed is mixed into a liquid and piped into the tanks where the cells will grow, and they're looked after closely.

CZERPAK: You're watching that they're just the right temperature. They don't have a fever. You're watching that they're the right pH.

AUBREY: Then the cells start to proliferate and grow into meat. GOOD Meat scientist Vitor Espirito Santo says what's happening here is akin to making sourdough bread from a starter full of yeast.

VITOR ESPIRITO SANTO: So when you think about yeast fermentation, you have a cell that essentially proliferates in a cultured media. And that - by dividing, it's producing the product we want.

AUBREY: He says the difference here, of course, is the cells are animal cells.

ESPIRITO SANTO: The processes are the same. We feed them with nutrients, and they will multiply until we tell them to stop.

AUBREY: The meat grows inside the tanks on trays. After it comes out, it's molded into shapes such as nuggets or fillet. After three to four weeks, they're ready for the grill.

(SOUNDBITE OF STOVE SIZZLING)

AUBREY: GOOD Meat's in-house chef Chris Jones prepared a grilled chicken dish in a clay pot with mushrooms.

CHRIS JONES: Just doing a really umami-style mushroom glaze and actually just leaving the chicken basically naked.

AUBREY: He adds some asparagus, brown rice and quinoa.

Well, it definitely looks beautiful.

And he serves it up.

This is really delicious - tastes like chicken.

JONES: It is chicken.

AUBREY: It's actually about 75% cultivated chicken. The other 25% is plant-based ingredients. This blended approach may be the fastest way to get products to market, given scaling up commercial production could be a challenge. GOOD Meat's Andrew Noyes says the goal is to sell its products in the U.S.

NOYES: We are working actively with the FDA and USDA on an efficient pathway to market so we can sell our chicken product to consumers here.

AUBREY: And yesterday another cultivated meat company cleared a key regulatory hurdle. The Food and Drug Administration gave Upside Foods a safety nod after reviewing more than 100 pages of documentation showing that their cultivated meat is safe to eat. It's an important first step towards selling their products in the U.S. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PUTH SONG, "LEFT AND RIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.