In vitro meat: from science fiction to the future of food
Medicor talks to the creator of the world’s most expensive hamburger about the technology and ethics behind lab-grown meat.
by Iskra Pollak Dorocic
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ould you eat a hamburger that was grown from stem cells in a lab? Does it sound appetizing in any way? Chances are you would say no. I thought so too until I spoke to Mark Post, the scientist behind the stem cell-derived hamburger unveiled last year. There are a number of compelling reasons to support this budding technology and they do not just include animal welfare. Dr. Post, who recently spoke at the Nov2k conference at Karolinska Institutet, says his main motivations for this endeavor are “for the potential societal impact that it has: on food security, the environment and animal welfare.”
The maintenance of livestock has an enormous environmental impact. According to a 2006 UN report on food security, livestock accounts for 18% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, mostly due to the release of methane, a greenhouse gas which is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This makes the meat industry worse than the entire transportation sector in terms of emission. Going vegetarian would do a lot more for the environment than swapping in an SUV.
Not only that, the amount of land used for grazing takes up 26% of the habitable land on the planet, 70% of all land used for agriculture and 8% of global human water use. We are quickly running out of resources necessary to continue increasing livestock for a growing global population – the global herd amounts to a staggering 60 billion land animals.
In contrast, cells taken from one cow could produce 175 million burgers. With our current farming practices it would take 440,000 cows. The point of introducing lab-grown meat would not be to completely eliminate livestock, but to reduce their numbers drastically.
Current livestock farming practices also facilitate the rise in epidemic viruses. Both swine and avian flu, for example, originated from industrial livestock. Prevalent bacterial contamination make meat recalls common. A huge amount of antibiotics is used on cattle, fuelling the rise of antibiotic resistance. Growing meat in sterile facilities could avoid all of these problems.
During his talk, Dr. Post emphasized that we do not actually need to consume animal protein in order to survive and thrive. Being vegetarian is a perfectly reasonable option, nevertheless only 3% of Europe’s population chooses this alternative, and this proportion has remained relatively stable over the last 35 years. Clearly, most of us prefer to keep eating meat, despite knowing that it’s not great either for our health nor for the environment. What’s more, global meat consumption is projected to more than double by 2050 due to the developing world’s increasing ability to afford it.
…cells taken from one cow could produce 175 million burgers
At a much-publicized and broadcasted event in London during August 2013, the world’s first “cultured beef” burger was presented to the world. It was cooked by British chef Richard McGeown and tasted by a panel including Josh Schonwald, a food critic, Hanni Rützler, a nutritional researcher, and Dr. Post himself. Post describes the taste as being “not perfect yet and we knew that. But it’s definitely getting there. It’s definitely better than any other meat substitute that I have tasted. I know it will be there when I can no longer distinguish it from real meat.”
So how is cultured beef actually grown in the lab? The process begins with harvesting stem cells from a cow, specifically the muscle-precursor cells which are able to regenerate throughout life. The cells differentiate and multiply a trillionfold, then assemble into myotubes , which are basically muscle fibres, each less than 3 mm long. Muscle cells naturally contract and relax, making the myotubes form rings of muscle tissue through this movement. These rings are then cut into strands, and 20,000 of the strands are assembled into one burger.
The actual scientific process of in-vitro meat production is relatively simple. “If I can do it, anyone can”, insists Dr. Post. He envisions a future where one could grow his or her own meat. To him the science behind it is quite trivial, and very much in the realm of possibility today. “It’s something that’s scientifically kind of boring. So you shouldn’t do this kind of experiment in the walls of academia. It is more of an industrial project.” The next step is to make it into a commercial enterprise. “The investors are there, but the food companies are reluctant. They are conservative.” The funding for the initial phase of development came partially from Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, who said he got into the idea for animal welfare reasons. He is the one who picked up the €250,000 tab for the first lab-grown burger ever produced.
The first in-vitro burger was made up entirely of cultured muscle cells, with an addition of powdered egg and breadcrumbs, which are used for binding even in regular burgers. Some beetroot juice and saffron was also added to enhance colour and make the meat look more natural. The main difference from a regular burger is that the cultured burger contains absolutely no fat, as it is pure muscle. Still, the panel members were sympathetic and praised the burger’s texture for its ‘realness’ and ‘whole mouth feel’.
Dr. Post says that the public reaction has mostly been positive. “Most people understand that there are issues with meat production. And any alternative that you present they look at it favorably.” In the UK, 68% of people on the street say they support the technology. In the Netherlands, 63% feel the same, and 50% say they would buy in-vitro meat in the supermarket if it were available. “The real initial scare has faded somewhat, because a lot of people have been writing about it, and most people now know what it is. Which is actually pretty amazing.” Beside education, the other obstacle is just pure habit. Dr. Post thinks once people get accustomed to the idea there will be little obstacle in getting cultured meat into kitchens. “Making it accessible makes it less ‘frankenstein-ish’. “
According to Dr. Post, the best part of talking to the public about cultured meat is the feedback he gets. “This subject requires a lot of public debate. And for that you need to engage, there is no way around it.” When asked how he feels about being the face of this new technology and all the publicity surrounding it, he laughs, “I’ve been in medical research for 25 years and there has never been a medical journalist interested in that work. And now all of a sudden they are interested in something that seems almost trivial to me.”
“This subject requires a lot of public debate.”
Dr. Post has been working as a tissue engineer with an expertise in building blood vessels, and meat engineering started out more as a side project. “I wasn’t really looking to get into a new type of tissue, or new type of tissue engineering, but I just very much like the application.” Growing in-vitro meat proved to be much more achievable compared to for example growing functional organs for transplantation. “I like the idea to start achieving your goal with tissue engineering at an earlier stage.“
In order to start producing more complex types of meat, such as steak, a few engineering obstacles still need to be solved. A thick steak would need a vasculature in order for the cells to receive sufficient oxygen and nutrients. Another goal is to eliminate serum (which comes from animals) from the culture media used to feed the cells as they are growing – this would make the procedure even more cruelty free. And then of course there is the cost. It will need to substantially decrease to ever be plausible commercially.
Looking to the future, the development of cultured meat looks bright. Who knows, maybe in a few years we’ll be enjoying some guilt-free hamburgers. And even if not, in-vitro meat is provoking some much-needed dialogue on the subject of mass production of meat and future technologies. Bon appetit?