From preventing famines to feeding astronauts in space, team leader and professor Hong Jin-kee believes his innovative “meaty rice” could provide an eco-friendly, ethical way for people to obtain their protein. This novel dish, which resembles a regular bowl of rice but has a pink hue and a faint buttery aroma, is made with beef muscle and fat cell cultures.

“No animals were harmed in the creation of this dish,” said Hong of Seoul’s Yonsei University. Using cultured meat, “we can obtain animal protein without the slaughter of livestock,” he told AFP. This aligns with a global trend towards meat alternatives, driven by ethical concerns over industrial livestock rearing and the environmental impact of greenhouse gas emissions from animal farming.

Hong, who specializes in organoids and biomedical sciences, chose rice for his research because it is already a primary protein source in Asia. The process is currently time-consuming: each rice grain is coated with fish gelatin for adherence, then individually injected with beef cells and cultured in a petri dish for up to 11 days. Rice has a “slightly porous structure,” making it an ideal medium for cells to grow uniformly from the inside out.

Hong and his team are working on scaling up the process and hope to get their creation approved as a relief food for emergency situations in two African countries. “For those who are limited to… just one meal a day, a slight increase in (protein content), even by just a few percent, becomes incredibly important,” Hong said.

While South Korea has not yet approved any cultivated meat for consumption, it announced plans in 2022 to invest millions in a “foodtech” fund and has identified cell-cultured meat as a priority research area. Cultivated meat is already sold in Singapore and the United States, though Italy banned it last year to protect its livestock industry.

Despite the promise of cultured meat, some ethical concerns persist, such as the sourcing of initial animal cells and the safety of the serum used in culture media. Choi Yoon-jae, a former emeritus professor at Seoul National University, raised concerns about the antibiotics and hormones added during the culturing process.

Hong’s team claims their hybrid rice method significantly reduces the protein’s carbon footprint by eliminating the need to raise and farm animals. Producing 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of protein releases 6.27 kilograms (13.8 pounds) of carbon dioxide—eight times less than traditional beef production.

Meaty rice represents a pioneering step towards sustainable, ethical protein sources. If successfully scaled and approved, it could play a vital role in addressing global food security and environmental challenges.

By Impact Lab