Efficiency in food production has always been the cornerstone of civilisations. However, the ballooning global population and the environmental impacts of agriculture and livestock, coupled with economic hurdles create susceptibility to food shortages. In fact, in several parts of the world, hunger remains pervasive.
But science has found another workaround through the introduction of cultured or lab-grown meat. By definition, this food product is an animal-flesh product made by obtaining muscle cells from a source animal and applying a protein that promotes growth and thereby, proliferation of cells and growth of muscle tissues. The science behind this process comes from the field of biotechnology, particularly tissue engineering.
The idea of growing meat, sometimes referred to as in vitro meat, traces back to 1931 from Winston Churchill and the first cultivation of muscle fibres was performed as early as 1971 by Russel Ross. Today, several laboratories from around the world are investing time and money in research and production.
Unveiling the first lab-grown beef burger
Researchers from Maastricht University in The Netherlands first introduced a lab-grown beef burger in August 2013 when Professor Mark Post invited Chef Richard McGeown to cook the meat in front of 200 attendees composed of journalists and members of the academe.
Accordingly, the cultured beef burger was made by “painlessly” harvesting myosatellite cells—a kind of stem cell that repairs muscle tissue—from the neck of a living cow. The researchers fed and nurtured these cells so they multiply and create muscle tissues. These tissues subsequently became muscle fibres.
There were 20,000 muscle fibres grown in individual culture wells that were used in making the lab-grown beef burger. Each fibre looked like a tiny hoop of greyish-white protein
In completing the process, each hoop of fibres was removed by hand, cut open, and straightened out. The fibres were pressed together, coloured with beetroot juice, and mixed with saffron, breadcrumbs, and some binding ingredients to form the burger.
While the unveiling of the first cultured beef burger in the world provided hopes for the future of lab-grown meat, there was a catch. The total cost of the project initiated by researchers from Maastricht University cost around $325,000.
Challenges of cultured or lab-grown meat
Producing edible meat from lab-grown muscle tissues undeniably costs a fortune that would make cultured meat an unwelcome alternative to livestock raising. However, it is important to note that the lab-grown burger demonstrated by Post and his team was a one-time shot.
Considering the economies of scale, cost advantage is attainable especially if researchers and investors are able to address the required scalability for a viable operation. Post noted that scalable manufacturing would require new game-changing innovation that could appear a decade or two from now.
Improving the taste and flavour is another issue. The lab-grown burger introduced and sampled in 2013 tasted considerably different from actual beef burger because of the absence of fat. Post and his team at Maastricht University are currently working to address this issue, particularly by culturing fatty tissue in addition to muscle fibres.
Because the process of stimulating cell growth and growing muscle fibres is different in laboratories than in nature, lab-grown meat falls short of the nutritional value found in normal meat. Take iron as an example. Lab-grown meat lacks a circulatory system needed to transport the iron and oxygen-binding myoglobin.
Current process used to culture muscle fibres also requires the use of animal product. In laboratories, stem cells are grown using a fetal bovine serum extracted from unborn calves. This process seems unsustainable and it defeats the concept of cruelty-free meet. In addition, disease-contaminated batch of fetal bovine serum could mean disaster.
Post and his team are exploring photosynthetic algae or cyanobacteria as an alternative to fetal bovine serum.
Acceptance is another issue. Some consumers might have a hard time accepting the thought that they would be eating meat grown in laboratories and infused with chemicals. Nonetheless, like any other developments in food technology, notably the advent of food processing, embracing lab-grown meat would require time.
Post, in his 2012 study, wrote, “In order to serve as a credible alternative to livestock meat, lab or factory grown meat should be efficiently produced and should mimic meat in all of its physical sensations, such as visual appearance, smell, texture, and of course, taste.
“The efficient culture of meat will primarily depend on culture conditions such as the source of medium and its composition,” he added. “Protein synthesis by cultured skeletal muscle cells should further be maximized by finding the optimal combination of biochemical and physical conditions for the cells. Many of these variables are known, but their interactions are numerous and need to be mapped. This involves a systematic, if not systems, approach.”
Advantages and implications of lab-grown meat
The World Health Organisation has estimated that meat production will rise to 367 million tons by 2030 from 218 million tons annually in 1997 to 1999. But the growing world population could rise the demand beyond the current estimates.
Expanding the operations of the food industry, particularly the meat industry would further exasperate the environment. After all, the industry is currently a big contributor to the aggregated environmental footprint of human activities, emitting 40 percent methane and 65 percent nitrous oxide—more potent climate warming agents than carbon dioxide.
It is also worth mentioning that livestock operations are consuming a huge portion of critical resources, including arable land, drinkable water, edible food, and fossil fuel resources.
Then there are the ethical considerations that tag along meat production. Animal welfare groups and adherents of veganism have been criticising the meat industry for the pervasiveness of animal cruelty. Because lab-grown meat promotes cruelty-free production of food, it generally appeals to supporters of animal welfare.
From the aforementioned, lab-grown meat addresses the issues concerning the growing human population, the environmental impact of the meat industry, and perspectives regarding animal welfare. It should be noted that lab-grown meat also coincides with future food production technologies and concepts, including vertical farming in which agriculture production will transpire inside controlled and automated tall buildings and skyscrapers placed within urban areas.
However, there is also a concern that lab-grown meat would further promote the commercialisation of food production. The technological requirements needed to grow meat in laboratories could reduce the self-sufficiency of communities, thus making them dependent on few global food corporations.
Further details of the study of post are in the article “Cultured meat from stem cells: Challenges and prospects” published in 2012 in the journal Meat Science. More details of the process involved in lab-grown meat are found in the article “Cultured beef: Medical technology to produce food” authored by Post in 2014 and published in the Journal of Science of Food and Agriculture.