Nowadays, meat’s demand is so great that in its consequence there have been strong ecological damages, such as deforestation or the increase of methane levels. We also can’t overlook animal abuse in the meat industries. All of this increase the motivation to find a strategy that cooperates to combat all these damages, but its name is accompanied by some rejection for its artificial origin. They are the cultured meat, also known as in vitro meats.
The current demand for meat products is so high that associated with it are beginning to pose all the problems that entails, both ecological, as moral issues.
The production of meat in the laboratory is not something new, and it is not difficult to find in search of information about this process a famous phrase said by Churchill in a book entitled “Thoughts and Adventures” of 1932 where it says “…..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…”.
How is prepared this meat in the laboratory?
This meat in the laboratory is obtained through cell cultures. Although it hasn’t yet been commercialized, many laboratories are working in this meat’s development.
At first, its production was based on the cultivation of cells from muscle tissue that were able to proliferate in a matrix (usually collagen) and in a nutritive medium. At first these cells were obtained from animal muscle. Over the years, different types of stem cells of interest have been found, as well as modifying growth media based on trial and error. One of the main cell types that were the first to be used were myoblasts (muscle cell precursor cells) or satellite cells. These were selected because, although they could give problems in the proliferative phase, once overcome, they entered a phase of differentiation that was quite simple to control, so the satellite cell culture was preferably chosen. The satellite cells differentiated in myotubes and myofibrils, that is, in skeletal muscle tissue. In this phase of differentiation, cells are forced to have a maximum production of proteins to produce an hypertrophy, trying to avoid muscular atrophy.
There are, of course, more options. For instance, the induction of porcine cells to a pluripotent state (iPSC). This is achieved by selecting a differentiated cell (e.g. fibroblast) and introducing four transcription factors (Oct4, Sox2, KLF4 and c-Myc), which leads the cell to a pluripotent state through which it can be redirected to a specific differentiation, in the case, to a muscle. These cells grow in an anchored matrix (Scaffold technique) and then perfused with a culture medium to a suitable bioreactor.
Another fact to consider in the production of these meats is that you don’t only have to develop a muscle tissue, you also have to prepare other components of the meat, such as the fatty tissue. The Mark Post laboratory team, for instance, use a culture of adipocytes derived from stem cells.
The culture medium is also quite important. At first, it was used animal cell cultures, but these culture medium have been modified based on trials and errors. We are looking for cultures mediums that reduce the probability of contamination of the culture, and it is also normal that during the change of proliferation phase to the differentiation phase the culture medium is also changed to optimize the phase in which the cell culture is found. Also, it is necessary to apply external growth factors. All this makes the medium in the in vitro meat production system one of the most expensive parts of the entire process.
What motivate us to investigate the production of in vitro meat?
Without a doubt, there are two motivating forces for this. The first one is economic, due to the incredible increase in meat demand for that can’t be compensated by traditional livestock farming. The second one is to take care of the environment, since traditional livestock farming hurts it, we will see how later.
A little of history.
The first patent for the production of in vitro meat was awarded in 2001 to Wiete Westerhof of the University of Amsterdam, to Dr. Willem van Eelen and to the entrepreneur Willem van Kooten. From this year, other institutions started to show interest in this research, being Jon F. Vein (US) given another patent (USPTO Patent No. 6,835,390) for the production of meat for human consumption through tissue engineering.
In Amsterdam they are investigating the medium culture, in the University of Utrecht the proliferation of muscle cells and in the Technical University of Eindhoven the bioreactors.
In August 2013, the first beef burger produced in the laboratory was cooked and tested on a live program in London, England. The production of this piece of meat was achieved in the Mark Post laboratory at the University of Maastricht. You can see the video above:
Mark Post also assures that cultured meat could completely replace traditional livestock farming, but we would have to wait 20 to 30 years until cultured meat industry is a real thing. However, recently Peter Slade wrote an article that was published earlier this year. In this article there was a test in which costumers were asked to choose between beef meat, vegan meat, or meat produced in the laboratory, if all the meats were at a relatively same price. Although in the same article the author talks about how many young people are aware and informed admit that they would bet on an alternative to the meat of traditional livestock farming, the results indicate that in proportion, much less people would bet by an in vitro meat (11 %).
What do we need to impulse the choice of cultured meat? We need to be aware of the serious problem of the traditional livestock farming.
Which are the problems associated with traditional livestock farming?
We already know the answer, no doubt. In the first place, we need to put ourselves in a situation of an exacerbated increase in meat demand. This demand is about supplying through traditional livestock, but we need more livestock, we need more land. We colonize extensive grassland spaces. How? Daily logging thousands of hectares of forest. In this way a new grass space for the animals is obtained. However, a forest is much more efficient than a pasture for the capture of carbon dioxide, so, for each pasture space that replaces a forest area, we reduce the efficiency of capturing carbon dioxide, damaging the environment. This isn’t everything, with our new grass area, we need to fill it with more livestock. Ruminants contribute to the emission of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. In short, the current traditional livestock is very polluting, precisely because of its abuse, the animals and the environment. Of course, we can’t overlook the animal abuse associated on many occasions with traditional livestock.
Let’s see now what effects would produce the change on the in vitro meat’s production, based on research carried out in 2011 by the researchers Hanna L. Tuomisto and M. Joost Teixeira de Mattos, from the universities of Oxford and Amsterdam, respectively. The investigation consisted in the evaluation of the life cycle (LCA) of this new production model. Life cycle assessments are design tools that investigate and evaluate the environmental impacts of a product or service during all stages of its existence: extraction, production, distribution, use and end of life (reuse, recycling, valorization and elimination/disposal of waste). The results showed that the production of 1000 kilos of cultivated meat required:
- 26-33 GJ of energy,
- 367-521 m3 of water,
- 190-230 m2 of land,
- and they emitted 1900-2240 kg CO2.
When we compared these data with the model of conventional meat production present in Europe, the cultivated meats represented a decrease of 7-45% in the need for energy, 78-96% less in the production of greenhouse emissions, a 99 % decrease in the extension of land necessary for its development, and 82-96% less in the use of water resources.
However, despite all the benefits that we can think about in vitro meat, it is necessary to take a step back and apply a dose of reality to the challenges that face. Although they can be overcome, they are still obstacles to our competition against meat produced in traditional livestock farming.
First, in vitro meat production is expensive. Mark Post says that you could get a kilo of meat in vitro for about 57 euros and that in a short time its price may be up to the traditional beef. However, this point of view may be too optimistic, since nowadays there is no industry dedicated to in vitro meat production either. Also, in 2013, Mark Post’s in vitro burger cost 300,000 euros for 140 grams. It wasn’t cheap at all.
Another question is if people would consume this type of meat. Knowing their origin, many of their characteristics are probably under a stricter focus. We talk about its taste, its texture, its appearance. In addition, many ethical misgivings or even rejection of the idea of consuming a food product produced in the laboratory and not in a natural environment would probably come into play.
Another question that we still can’t answer is what kind of ecological and market impact could produce the in vitro meat industry. We can predict what will happen, but we can’t know if our prediction will be correct.
In short, cultured meat arises not only to supply the meat demand, but to act against an increase in pollution generated by traditional livestock farming. This meat can also control the composition of the product more precisely, so that healthier foods can be provided. However, no one can say with certainty what future reception will augur to these meats, since this type of initiatives are not usually welcomed with confidence. There is still time until these meats are a commercial reality, which allows us to gain time to raise awareness of the advantages of in vitro meat.
And you, would you consume a hamburger made in the laboratory? Do you think that, despite its healthy initiative, it will replace traditional livestock farming?
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Post, M. (2012). Cultured meat from stem cells: Challenges and prospects. Meat Science, 92(3), pp.297-301.
Slade, P. (2018). If you build it, will they eat it? Consumer preferences for plant-based and cultured meat burgers. Appetite, 125, pp.428-437