I’ve been a vegetarian for 10 years, out of ethical and increasingly environmental considerations – and we have talked about the environmental impact of livestock production in abundance. However, I realize that the probability of most people switching towards an herbivore lifestyle is rather low, whether they want to maintain protein intake or plainly like the taste of a juicy steak. What, then, if we could get exactly that – a nutritional and yummy piece of meat – without ever having to raise or slaughter an animal?
This might sound like Science Fiction, but companies such as Modern Meadow are engaging in intensive research activities to explore the possibilities of manufacturing synthetic meat and animal products. The first item they are tackling are leather, which they create by “using 3-D printing to deposit clumps of cells into patterns of tissue“, as this NBC article explains. After printing, the cells fuse together, and the company then transforms these hides into usable leather. Their first prototype is supposed to debut later this year.
Other researchers and companies have been looking into the possibility of creating in-vitro meat for decades, yielding the first results in 2001, when scientists were able to add 14% of muscle cells to a piece of fish that they immersed in fetal bovine serum. This started a race fueled by PETA’s challenge to award $1 million to the first successful in-vitro meat creation. While the original deadline of the contest (started in 2008) was June 30th, 2012, they extended the evaluation deadline by a year to June 2013 and the final deadline to early 2016 in order to focus the competition on marketable in-vitro chicken. The rules: you get $1 million if you
- Produce an in vitro chicken-meat product that has a taste and texture indistinguishable from real chicken flesh to non-meat-eaters and meat-eaters alike.
- Manufacture the approved product in large enough quantities to be sold commercially, and successfully sell it at a competitive price in at least 10 states.
A Guardian article claimed in January 2012 that the “test-tube meat” could become a reality that year, with more than 30 teams around the world working on the best and most efficient way to make such meat tasty and economically viable. There are two dominant methods out there right now – first, to grow new muscle cells from stem cells and ‘bulking’ them up by stretching them, in a process that mimics exercise; and second, to use the 3-D printing used by Modern Meadow in leather production to also spray successive layers of ‘bio-ink’ to build fake steaks or hamburgers. NBC reports that Modern Meadow’s research efforts are immensely interesting for industry and governments alike, are supported by both private and public grants, and that their project already garnered $2 million of funding.
There are still some hurdles to overcome in research, however: getting the taste and texture just right might prove difficult, given that real meat is not just muscle tissue but also contains fat cells and a complex network of blood vessels, all of which contribute to what we expect meat to taste like. Plus, at this early stage it is still really expensive, and researchers envision having a hard time convincing consumers to try in-vitro meat: in a USDA funding application, Modern Meadow suggested that “we expect it will first appeal to culinary early-adopted consumers, and the segment of the vegetarian community that rejects meat for ethical reasons. With reduction in price, it can reach the masses with religious restrictions on meat consumption (people restricted to Hindu, Kosher, Halal diets) and finally populations with limited access to safe meat production“. This last point is interesting because it is argued that in-vitro meat would be easier to control for food-based pathogens, and thus safer for consumption.
The question about the edibility is real, however, since an in-vitro hamburger cook-off that has been several times postponed is finally supposed to happen in a couple of weeks, as the New York Times reported. Mark Post from Maastricht University is one of the pioneers in the area and has successfully created a $325,000 hamburger using 20,000 thin strips of cultured muscle tissue. According to the article, “Dr. Post, who has conducted some informal taste tests, said that even without any fat, the tissue “tastes reasonably good.” For the London event he plans to add only salt and pepper.“
It is so fascinating to me that here animal rights activists and meat afficionados are actively working together (or at least encouraging each other) to solve some of the ethical and environmental concerns facing meat consumption.
According to an informal Huffington Post poll, 59% of readers would try in-vitro meat. How about you?
Bonus: This How Stuff Works article explains the whole process much better than I could – check it out if you want more details!