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Saturday, January 16, 2021

Shojinmeat Project: Helping citizens grow DIY cell-based meat

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Yuki Hanyu, CEO of Japan’s Shojinmeat Project, talks providing tools and helping citizens and high-school students grow their own cultured meat.

The idea of lab-grown meat is nothing new. Most people concerned about sustainability or interested in breakthroughs in cellular biology have probably come across the increasingly popular topic of cultured meat. Although most of us know what it is in principle, one could wager that most people do not really know how it is done or what it entails in practice.

The concept of growing meat in a lab is so distant from the average person that we leave it to the scientists. So how can we expect the general public to readily consume a version of meat they do not fully understand? That’s the dilemma that the Shojinmeat Project aims to tackle.

The ultimate goal of the Shijonmeat Project is to acclimate the general public to cultured meat and cellular agriculture, so that they can grow their own meat. Yuki Hanyu, founder and CEO of the programme, aims to “to make cellular agriculture just another form of cooking or a children’s summer science project.”

A citizen science project in Japan for developing open-source clean meat, Shojinmeat Project gives everyday people the means to grow their own meat at home or at high school by lending out meat-growing equipment to anyone interested.

Hanyu has always been a fan of sci-fi. Particularly, the technology presented in sci-fi: Mars colonies, hyper-skyscrapers, nanorobots and cell-cultured meat. This is the reason why he chose to pursue his PhD and ultimately a career in applied science. In 2014, he gravitated towards cultured meat “because the time seemed right for this technology”, and in 2015, he founded the Shojinmeat Project.

Without any money or connections, “a citizen science/hobbyist community was pretty much the only way [he] could start.” Hanyu also believes that the “implementation of novel technologies happens in a way that goes against people’s will”. So, he opted to start “a non-incorporated grassroots movement developing cutting-edge technology” in order to make new cultured-meat technologies accessible to the general public.

The term ‘Shojin’ is taken from Buddhism, meaning devotion to the path to enlightenment or nirvana. Although not a Buddhist himself, Hanyu recognises that the unsustainable practices threatening the planet are “not leading to Nirvana”.

diy cell-based meat
Photo: The Shojinmeat Project

Participants of Shojinmeat Project receive meat-growing equipment and guidance by way of cell culture manuals and regular meetings to help them extract cells, prepare a culture medium and grow their own meat. The manuals go as far as to demonstrate how to use household items such as table fans to help them culture the meat.

Shojinmeat Project also engages artists in Japan interested in the project. These artists create anime for advertising and presentations for the programme. Hanyu says “it is one of the most effective ways of reaching technology-aware Gen-Z and Gen Alpha in East Asia”.

The project has experienced some success amongst its members. For example, a university student who started with DIY culture medium development and compiled the results in Shojinmeat Project’s biannual magazine is now an intern at the Good Food Institute Asia-Pacific. He is also a member of Cellular Agriculture Institute of the Commons, and involved in rulemaking activities at Tama University Center for Rulemaking Strategies.

Another member devised a method of using a sports drink as a culture medium for a DIY chicken cell culture in partial laboratory conditions. The procedure was described online and read by other members who repeated the experiments with improvements of their own, such as doing it in a completely DIY environment and trying other avian species. Hanyu believes that “this is a demonstration of a community approach to ensuring reproducibility in DIY bio”.

There is still a long road ahead for cultured meat but Shojinmeat Project is making headway by providing a direct platform for the general public to access meat-growing technology for household use. The project hopes to remove the unknowns, taboos and fears associated with cultured meat. It challenges the notion of complexity and unattainability around the idea of lab-grown meat.

If a high school student can culture meat, then surely there is not much to fear. Hanyu envisions the project reaching farmers and chefs one day, who will gain the ability to come up with their own cell-cultured meat recipes.