A dinner-time conversation with an outspoken vegan or an evening browsing through Netflix documentaries will tell you that we have a huge meat problem. Livestock production imposes a serious burden on the environment. The industry is the largest user of agricultural land, is a contributor to climate change, and is rapidly draining the world of scarce resources. As Earth’s population creeps closer to 10 billion, and developing countries dependant on this food source get wealthier, the global demand for meat production is likely to surpass what can be provided using current farming methods. Considering our intense cultural dependence on the meat industry, the solution does not seem to be as simple as promoting tofu dogs and soy patties. A 100% meat burger that promises to significantly reduce the use of resources without harming any animals, however, might be a plausible solution. The caveat? This meat would be grown in a laboratory.
Similar to in-vitro fertilization, in-vitro meat (sometimes referred to as cultured, synthetic, or cell-cultured meat), involves injecting muscle tissue from an animal into a cell culture, allowing cells to “grow” outside the animal’s body. This technique has been used for about 15 years in regenerative medicine for repairing human tissues and organs, but some food companies believe that they are on the horizon of using tissue engineering to better engineer our dinner plates.
First, stem cells, or myosatellite cells, are harvested from an unharmed living animal and then raised in a growth medium, allowing the cells to undergo multiple divisions in a process called proliferation. These kinds of cells are precursors to specific kinds of tissues and are capable of mass cellular growth. Once there is a substantial number of proliferated cells, they will be induced to differentiate, or turn into, myofibrils and myotubes, the dominant constitutes of meat. Theoretically we would only need a handful of animals to collect the cells. Some researchers believe that even 10 tiny muscle cells from a single pig could produce 50, 000 tonnes of pork.
Hold on, animal activists; don’t go celebrating just yet. Although there will certainly be livestock spared, the process is greatly dependant on access to fetal bovine serum (FBS), an animal by-product. This is the liquid component of the blood from a calf’s fetus after it has been depleted of red blood cells, fibrin and clotting factors. FBS contains high concentrations of growth factor and low levels of immunoglobulin, thereby forming the ideal environment for cells to divide. The serum, however, is difficult to obtain and very expensive, as it is harvested by draining the blood from the fetus of a calf when its’ mother is slaughtered for beef. Many companies are therefore working to develop plant-based sources for growth factors in an effort to cheapen the product and, at the same time, make it completely animal-friendly.
In vitro meat is a rather new technology. In 2013 Dutch scientist Mark Post, financially backed by Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, demonstrated the possibility of this technology with the world’s first lab-grown hamburger. It required 20,000 fibres of beef, cost about $325, 000 to make, and took about 3 months to grow. The experiment was mostly successful; the meat was completely safe and formed something that looked almost identical to a burger, yet the taste testers were not so easily convinced. They reported that the artificial meat was similar in texture to that of actual meat, yet the flavour was not comparable. This can mostly be attributed to the aggregation of skeletal muscle present in real meat, which consists of a combination of connective tissue, fat and blood vessels. By comparison, Post’s lab-grown burger was made with only one kind of muscle tissue. And while it is possible to grow fat tissue using a multitude of muscle tissues, one will never be able to fully replicate “taste”, as there are thousands of components which play a role in how food taste once they reach our tongues. For example, tenderness is a complex quality associated with good meat and depends on many factors, including an animal’s age, breed, protein intake, and stress during slaughtering.
Despite the fact that consumers have expressed concerns with “test tube meat,” companies are pushing forward. Hampton Creek, the Silicon Valley start-up behind plant-based food products like Just Mayo, has promised to be the first to bring in-vitro meat to the table by the end of 2018. Considering it currently costs thousands of dollars to produce even a pound of ground beef, this goal seems highly optimistic; not to mention the fact that less than 9% of consumers in developed countries are vegetarian. It will certainly be interesting to see how companies such as Hampton Creek get creative in their marketing in their effort to reach out to vegetarians and meat lovers alike.
As of now, we can only speculate about the appearance of in-vitro meat in the marketplace, but the technology has potential. The possible health benefits could be wide-ranging, and who knows, maybe with time companies and food engineers may even get the taste to mimic that of the real thing. Controlling the ratio of unsaturated to polyunsaturated fats in the product can conceivably make the meat healthier than conventional alternatives. In any case, experiments aimed at producing meat without the need to raise animals can lead to a change in how we think about meat. The question, though, is whether consumers will get on board and overcome an aversion to laboratory-grown meat. Time will tell.