Where’s My Lab-grown Meat?

Where’s My Jetpack is an occasional segment on Life, the Universe & Everything Else, a podcast produced by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba. This segment will air on 25 August 2013, as part of Episode 64.


For decades now, scientists have been promising us untold marvels, from jetpacks to hovercars to computers that can think! But where are these wonders of technology? In “Where’s My Jetpack?”, I demand answers, and discuss the unforeseen pitfalls and setbacks facing new technology. In this episode of Where’s My Jetpack? we ask, “Where’s My Lab-grown Frankenmeat?”

It has been called the “fast food of the future”, and (of course) the “Frankenburger”, and unlike some of the other items we’ve covered in the past on Where’s My Jetpack?, this innovation could be right around the corner! The idea of “cultured meat” (meat produced using cultured cells in vitro) has been around for a very long time. A staple of science fiction, even Winston Churchill reportedly saw the development of this technology as inevitable, writing in 1936:

Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.

Perhaps the most obvious implication of such a technological leap would be for “ethical vegetarians”, those who avoid consuming meat (or other animal products) because of the suffering that these animals endure. Cultured meat has the potential to curb or even eliminate this suffering.

But allowing vegetarians to return to their omnivorous ways is just the beginning.

Worldwide, more than 240 million metric tons of meat are consumed each year, and raising livestock accounts for roughly 70% of all agricultural land use. Based on existing trends, experts predict that this number will nearly double in the next forty years, with most of the growth in production occurring in the developing world. Meat production has a serious environmental impact. Livestock contribute to climate change directly via methane production, but also indirectly due to destruction of forested land which would otherwise sequester carbon from the atmosphere. A 2007 report from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change notes that 80% of deforestation is a direct result of agricultural activities.

Disease transmission from livestock to humans also poses a danger, with outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (or “mad cow”) and various strains of influenza (the so-called “bird” and “swine” flus, for example) springing to mind, not to mention more common food-borne illnesses such as salmonella and E. coli. Additionally, the use of antibiotics in farming has been noted as a contributor to increasing antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

So there is clearly a market for this vat-grown meat. But, as I’ve said, the idea has been around for a long time, and not much has come of it. Four years ago, when Scientific American covered the story of a Dutch laboratory working to create a sausage out of pork stem cells, the nascent proto-meat was little more than a viscous stew: they hadn’t yet got the meat out of what they called “the snot phase”, and it was years away from being “sausage grade”.

As is often the case in science, progress is made slowly but steadily, rather than in leaps and bounds. In August 2013, a team of scientists out of Maastricht University in the Netherlands made headlines when they taste-tested the world’s first in vitro hamburger. The beef was five years in the making, and while the taste reportedly wasn’t quite right (the chief criticism being that the meat was too lean), other scientists are confident that this problem is easy to solve by directing some of the stem cells to develop into fat cells, instead of making the meat 100% muscle. According to the team, texture was the major hurdle, and in this category the burger scored well.

Professor Mark Post (Image Credit: David Parry, PA Wire)

Professor Mark Post
(Image Credit: David Parry, PA Wire)

But vegetarians who are excited by the prospect of chowing down on “ethical beef” might be waiting longer than they thought. Many cell cultures, including those used to produce in vitro meat, use fetal bovine serum as a growth medium, and I somehow doubt that many vegetarians would be enthused by the prospect of eating meat that was ultimately fed on the fetus of a slaughtered cow. I’m certainly not.

To answer some outstanding questions I had about the current state of the research, I contacted Professor Mark Post, the Chair of Physiology at Maastricht University and lead researcher on the cultured beef project. He confirmed that his in vitro beef made use of standard cell culture techniques, which generally require fetal bovine serum. When I asked if a viable alternative were available, he noted:

There are already many serum-free media available for different types of cells. We have tested some of them with variable degrees of success. The most successful one will serve as the basis to further improve the medium.

Post pointed to algal extract as potentially promising, noting that finding the optimal growth medium is simply a matter of time.

These efforts have even earned the approval of PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an animal rights groups that had previously offered a million dollar prize if any research team could develop a commercially viable cultured chicken product. While the deadline came and went without any researchers claiming the prize, the announcement out of Mastricht buoyed public interest in cultured meat products, and PETA announced that it would extend the contest until 4 March 2014.

Whether PETA’s contest (which many scientists have criticised for its unrealistically tight timeline) will have a significant impact on the development of in vitro chicken fingers is difficult to say, although I’m personally doubtful. I’m cheered, however, to see the organisation endorse this endeavour; even given PETA’s dubious public reputation (they’re a polarizing force, to put it mildly), there are sure to be some who are swayed by their message.

And there will doubtless be some who will need a little persuading. However, every serious objection to the project that I’ve been able to discover boils down in some way to either a fallacious appeal to “the natural”, or to that elusive “ick factor”. One of my family members mused, “Would my body even recognize it as food?”

I fully expected the majority of the public to be resistant to the idea of “artificial” meat, and I asked Professor Post whether he shared my concerns. Being scientifically minded, he pointed out that a systematic survey conducted by Flycatcher Internet Research (using a cross-sectional cohort of the Dutch population) apparently found that 63% of respondents looked favourably upon cultured beef. (Full disclosure: I was unfortunately unable to find this study; it’s possible that these results have not yet been published, or it may not have been published in English.)

I asked Professor Post what would need to happen before we’ll see cultured meat products on our supermarket shelves. He told me that cost-effectiveness will come largely from scaling up, and from incremental improvements to the production process, system automation, and recycling materials, and he notes, “Calculations based on current industrial production of stem cells for medical purposes indicate that this is feasible.” Post told me that increasing the efficiency of the process is key to averting the burden that will be placed on the environment by increased demand for meat. He cautioned me that this isn’t an easy task, and will require further investment, in terms of both money and time.

How long will it take? Well, Mark Post’s team estimates ten years, but he stresses that there are a lot of unknowns here. I’d wager that within the next two decades cultured meat products will start hitting supermarket shelves. They’ll likely start off as a novelty, or a luxury product, but I’m confident that these products will eventually supplant traditional agricultural meat as a dietary staple.

So what’s next?

Well, I’ve already seen debates break out online among religious scholars as to whether in vitro pork could qualify as kosher. For me, I’m excited by the prospect of combining this technology with additive manufactories to create 3D printed foods. That’s right: we’re talking about a replicator, Star Trek style. Except it’ll probably work pretty slowly, and it may be kind of gross.

But that’s probably decades in the future. In my opinion, everyone’s first priority should be fixing that lean-meat thing. Because bacon just wouldn’t taste right any other way.

References:
Environmental Impact: Worldwatch Institute | United Nations FCCC
Cultured Meat in the News: The Telegraph | CBC | Scientific American | The Australian
Cultured Chicken Meat Contest: PETA

7 Responses to “Where’s My Lab-grown Meat?”

  1. Bryan says:

    While I too look forward to “frankenburgers”, I’d point out that your review of the impacts of farming is quite one-sided:
    1) The single largest, and fastest growing, source of human-produced methane is rice farming.

    2) The CO2 footprint of some forms of animal protein (eggs & poultry in particular, plus some fish) is equal to that of plant-based foods, insects are actually better, so the CO2 benefit of moving away from those animals is minimal. In terms of what is required to produce a gram of protein, small animals generally have less total impact than plant alternatives

    3) You have to clear-cut to raise plants, which is just as bad as if you clear-cut to raise animals. Moreover, cattle (other problems aside) can be raised on marginal land without removing the natural vegetation. Much of the cattle farming in Alberta & BC is performed in this manner.

    In other words, farming in any form is environmentally damaging, and the ‘badness’ of the agriculture of meat is often exaggerated; or at least is often stated without a comparison to damage produced by crops. Vat-meat may provide a food source that is less impactful – but whether even that is true remains to be seen.

    • Gem Newman says:

      You make some great points, Bryan. Thanks!

      I didn’t discuss the differential environmental impact of raising livestock versus vegetable agriculture because my primary purpose wasn’t to argue that raising animals was worse for the environment than farming vegetables. (For those who are curious, an IPCC publication on the subject of methane emissions resulting from rice cultivation can be found here.) Both certainly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation, and I did not mean to imply that meat was solely to blame.

      But animals do contribute, and this technology has the potential to address those concerns. We are admittedly still in the early stages, and many factors—how long it takes to produce the meat, what power and nutrient sources are used, etc.—will come into play. On this score, the point you make about raising insects for food is especially cogent, and in retrospect I wish that I’d given that topic a paragraph or two, as you won’t have to wait 10–20 years for cricket burgers. Perhaps I’ll add an addendum to that effect.

      Thanks again!

  2. Ash says:

    I’d also add that although small and certainly not in any way replacing factory-style farming, the grass-fed movement also has less of the environmental and bacterial consequences of modern farming as well as changing the nutritional content of the product raised on pasture. The smaller scale, more local aspects of pasture-farmed livestock also contribute somewhat to a more “humane” product, in that livestock can be killed straight on the farm or transported much smaller distances to a usually smaller and better monitored slaughterhouse. Or at least, that’s the idea behind a lot of this — producers can do as they wish but much of the financial backbone of this particular industry tends to keep a closer eye on what is being done with their animal products before it reaches their tables.

    So, in that sense, vat-produced meat versus pasture-raised livestock may not be as good as a tradeoff as vat-produced meat versus industrial agra-business meat, but seeing as how most of the livestock produced isn’t viably produced as a idyllic happy-cow-on-green-grass product, I think this is on to something.

  3. Dianne Sousa says:

    Gem,

    Is there any technological impediment to growing the meat of other animals, such as fish?

    Also, I’m wondering about how we would overcome some of the sensory aspects of eating meat beyond texture. A T-bone steak isn’t the same without the bone. Any thoughts?

    • Gem Newman says:

      That’s not a question that I looked into specifically, but based on the reading that I’ve done and my conversation with Professor Post, I think that the specific animal is less of an issue than the texture profile that we’re currently dealing with. The texture of this hamburger was by all reports great, which is a huge leap, but that’s still quite a way away from the flakiness you’d expect from a piece of tilapia, or the texture (chewiness? I don’t know; it’s been a while since I’ve eaten meat, I guess) that you’d expect from a piece of steak.

      You’ll definitely be seeing highly processed meats (your sausages, your fishsticks, your salisbury steaks) before anything else. (Think supermarket freezer aisle, rather than fancy restaurant.)

      Other sensory aspects are currently a challenge as well, as you mentioned. Specific to the burger discussed here, the colour of the meat was fairly weird, so they actually dyed it with beet juice prior to cooking it. That seems like a fairly minor issue, however, compared to the texture problem. I could imagine artificial “bones” being inserted to add to the effect, for example. But it’s early in the game, and it’s hard to say how things will develop.

      • Dianne Sousa says:

        Yeah I’m trying to imagine how lab grown meat will integrate into the food system, and all I can picture is a sort of cola wars scenario where one fast food chain claims their frankenburger (or fillet O’frankenflounder) is better than others. Large amounts of people will specifically avoid eating at certain establishments because they serve a particular brand which they claim tastes like garbage. Nonsense like that.

  4. Jonathan Thornburg says:

    There’s an Arthur C Clarke short story “Food of the Gods” (first published in 1961) about a new synthetic food sweeping the market… which turns out to be synthetic _human_ flesh.

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