August 14, 2012
Artificial Meat – Not As Far-fetched As You Might Think
April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Are test tube burgers coming to a grocery store near you? Sounds like science fiction, and until recently, it actually was.
Now, the prospect of lab-grown meat appearing on our supermarket shelves is closer than ever. We aren't talking about the whole cow, however. That would be an "udderly" different story.
Synthetic or test-tube meat involves taking a small amount of cells from a living animal and growing it into lumps of muscle tissue in the lab. In theory, this can then be turned into meat for human consumption.
Scientists believe lab-grown meat could not only save animal lives, but could also help reduce the environmental impact of meat production.
Although the technology to create artificial meat has been around since the turn of the century — NASA looked into developing it for their astronaut program — making it edible and commercial viable remained out of reach. The other major hurdle for lab-grown meat to overcome is consumer acceptance. It is unknown whether consumers will accept it as an alternative to farm animal-based meat.
Scientist Gabor Forgacs, of the University of Missouri, specializes in tissue engineering. He works to create replacement tissue and organs for humans, and realized the same technology could be used to engineer meat for human consumption.
According to a CNN report, Forgacs' company, Modern Meadows, has already attracted investors interested in the technology, including funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the moment, though, he doesn't think that this will be a product for the masses. More likely, lab-grown meat will be a niche item, like Kobe beef which current sells for $125 - $295 per kilo.
"This product isn't going to be for the masses at the beginning, it's going to be for eco-conscious people and people who don't eat meat for ethical reasons," says Forgacs.
Forgacs isn't the only scientist working on test-tube beef. Dutch researchers, led by Mark Post from the Maastricht University are promising a high-profile launch for their synthetic hamburger by the end of the year.
Forgacs says that the first lab-grown product from Modern Meadows will be leather, which he says is a similar product, but not as controversial and doesn't require jumping through the same kind of legislative hoops that meat does.
"What the final outcome is going to be is difficult to predict," says Forgacs. "One thought is that it'll be something like an ingredient to a lot of staples which are based on animal protein -- for example we make something which has the consistency of ground meat and that can be used for patÃ©, meatballs.
"Take the analogy of flour. You don't eat flour, it's not very tasty but you eat a zillion products that contain flour and are very yummy. Whether or not this is going to be a major application of our product I don't know but this is definitely something I envisage it leading to."
According to Forgacs, lab-grown meat is quickly becoming a necessity as the world struggles to cope with an unsustainable meat industry. Concerns over animal welfare, water use, farmland for animal feed, waste and greenhouse gas emissions make meat production one of the most significant environmental issues in the world today.
The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that 18% of global greenhouse emissions are accounted for by the livestock sector, and demand for meat is predicted to double over the next 40 years. In contrast, research from the University of Oxford, published last year, estimated that lab-grown meat produces 78-96% lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventionally produced meat within the EU. It also had a 99% lower land use and an 82-96% lower water use.
"The rules of the game of meat production are not the same as they were 100 years ago," says Forgacs. "It's not sustainable. We are destroying this planet with intensive meat production. Seventy percent of arable land today is one way or another connected to animals through grazing animals or growing food for them. We're running out of it. "What we're doing is a transformational idea. We're going to produce something that is not exactly the same but it is going to be cost efficient and much less harmful to the environment."
Environmental concerns aren't the only reasons pushing the advance of this technology. There are compelling moral arguments as well. Humans currently slaughter about 1,600 mammals and birds every second for food — that is half a trillion lives a year, plus trillions more fish, crustaceans and mollusks. The total biomass of the entire world's livestock is almost exactly twice that of humanity itself. Meat farming is, say its critics, an obsolete technology that produces a nutrient-dense food in just about the most inefficient (and cruel) way imaginable. The problem — the big problem — is that, when given a choice, most of us like to eat meat regardless. It may be inefficient, dirty and cruel, but there is no denying that cooked animal flesh tastes good.
The "ick factor" question remains, will consumers accept this product as a viable, palatable alternative.
Neil Stephens, a sociologist from the Cesagen Centre at UK's Cardiff University, has been studying the emergence of lab-grown meat and has interviewed a number of researchers working on the technology.
"Is this stuff really meat or something else?" says Stephens. "Some want it to be meat, and recognized like any other meat. Others think it is better to be seen as a new type of meat and as such OK to taste or look different. Then there is a minority who feel it is a meat substitute, very meat-like but not meat."
Without an actual product for people to see, smell and taste, Stephens says it is difficult to judge how consumers will feel.
"If it ever becomes a marketable product it will still be a small one. It is not going to be plumped in the supermarket. It will take time to gain acceptability," says Stephens.
Many scientists working on lab-grown meat still see their research as marginal and strive to get synthetic meat accepted as a reality. Whatever the outcome, lab-grown meat is no longer in the realm of science fiction. "It is coming. There is no question that someone will hit it big and if we are the ones then so much the better," says Forgacs.