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25 August 2013

Where's My Lab-grown Meat?

Where's My Jetpack is an occasional segment on Life, the Universe & Everything Else, a podcast produced by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba. This segment aired on 25 August 2013, as part of Episode 64: Angry Atheists and Equality with Greta Christina.

Cross-posted from Skeptic North.

For decades now, scientists have been promising us untold marvels, from jetpacks to hovercars to computers that can think! But where are these wonders of technology? In "Where's My Jetpack?", Old Man Newman demands answers, and our crack research team discusses the unforeseen pitfalls and setbacks facing new technology, and tells us exactly how long it will be before science fiction becomes science fact!

In this episode of Where's My Jetpack?, Old Man Newman demands to know, "Where's My Lab-grown Frankenmeat?"

It has been called the "fast food of the future", and (of course) the "Frankenburger", and unlike some of the other items we've covered in the past on Where's My Jetpack?, this innovation could be right around the corner! The idea of "cultured meat" (meat produced using cultured cells in vitro) has been around for a very long time. A staple of science fiction, even Winston Churchill reportedly saw the development of this technology as inevitable, writing in 1936:

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.

Perhaps the most obvious implication of such a technological leap would be for "ethical vegetarians", those who avoid consuming meat (or other animal products) because of the suffering that these animals endure. Cultured meat has the potential to curb or even eliminate this suffering.

But allowing vegetarians to return to their omnivorous ways is just the beginning.

Worldwide, more than 240 million metric tons of meat are consumed each year, and raising livestock accounts for roughly 70% of all agricultural land use. Based on existing trends, experts predict that this number will nearly double in the next forty years, with most of the growth in production occurring in the developing world. Meat production has a serious environmental impact.* Livestock contribute to climate change directly via methane production, but also indirectly due to destruction of forested land which would otherwise sequester carbon from the atmosphere. A 2007 report from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change notes that 80% of deforestation is a direct result of agricultural activities.

Disease transmission from livestock to humans also poses a danger, with outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (or "mad cow") and various strains of influenza (the so-called "bird" and "swine" flus, for example) springing to mind, not to mention more common food-borne illnesses such as salmonella and E. coli. Additionally, the use of antibiotics in farming has been noted as a contributor to increasing antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

So there is clearly a market for this vat-grown meat. But, as I've said, the idea has been around for a long time, and not much has come of it. Four years ago, when Scientific American covered the story of a Dutch laboratory working to create a sausage out of pork stem cells, the nascent proto-meat was little more than a viscous stew: they hadn't yet got the meat out of what they called "the snot phase", and it was years away from being "sausage grade".

As is often the case in science, progress is made slowly but steadily, rather than in leaps and bounds. In August 2013, a team of scientists out of Maastricht University in the Netherlands made headlines when they taste-tested the world's first in vitro hamburger. The beef was five years in the making, and while the taste reportedly wasn't quite right (the chief criticism being that the meat was too lean), other scientists are confident that this problem is easy to solve by directing some of the stem cells to develop into fat cells, instead of making the meat 100% muscle. According to the team, texture was the major hurdle, and in this category the burger scored well.

But vegetarians who are excited by the prospect of chowing down on "ethical beef" might be waiting longer than they thought. Many cell cultures, including those used to produce in vitro meat, use fetal bovine serum as a growth medium, and I somehow doubt that many vegetarians would be enthused by the prospect of eating meat that was ultimately fed on the fetus of a slaughtered cow. I'm certainly not.

To answer some outstanding questions I had about the current state of the research, I contacted Professor Mark Post, the Chair of Physiology at Maastricht University and lead researcher on the cultured beef project. He confirmed that his in vitro beef made use of standard cell culture techniques, which generally require fetal bovine serum. When I asked if a viable alternative were available, he noted:

There are already many serum-free media available for different types of cells. We have tested some of them with variable degrees of success. The most successful one will serve as the basis to further improve the medium.

Post pointed to algal extract as potentially promising, noting that finding the optimal growth medium is simply a matter of time.

These efforts have even earned the approval of PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an animal rights groups that had previously offered a million dollar prize if any research team could develop a commercially viable cultured chicken product. While the deadline came and went without any researchers claiming the prize, the announcement out of Mastricht buoyed public interest in cultured meat products, and PETA announced that it would extend the contest until 4 March 2014.

Whether PETA's contest (which many scientists have criticised for its unrealistically tight timeline) will have a significant impact on the development of in vitro chicken fingers is difficult to say, although I'm personally doubtful. I'm cheered, however, to see the organisation endorse this endeavour; even given PETA's dubious public reputation (they're a polarizing force, to put it mildly), there are sure to be some who are swayed by their message.

And there will doubtless be some who will need a little persuading. However, every serious objection to the project that I've been able to discover boils down in some way to either a fallacious appeal to "the natural", or to that elusive "ick factor". One of my family members mused, "Would my body even recognize it as food?"

I fully expected the majority of the public to be resistant to the idea of "artificial" meat, and I asked Professor Post whether he shared my concerns. Being scientifically minded, he pointed out that a systematic survey conducted by Flycatcher Internet Research (using a cross-sectional cohort of the Dutch population) found that 63% of respondents looked favourably upon cultured beef. (Full disclosure: I was unfortunately unable to find this study; it's possible that these results have not yet been published, or it may not have been published in English.)

I asked Professor Post what would need to happen before we'll see cultured meat products on our supermarket shelves. He told me that cost-effectiveness will come largely from scaling up, and from incremental improvements to the production process, system automation, and recycling materials, and he notes, "Calculations based on current industrial production of stem cells for medical purposes indicate that this is feasible." Post told me that increasing the efficiency of the process is key to averting the burden that will be placed on the environment by increased demand for meat. He cautioned me that this isn't an easy task, and will require further investment, in terms of both money and time.

How long will it take? Well, Mark Post's team estimates ten years, but he stresses that there are a lot of unknowns here. I'd wager that within the next two decades cultured meat products will start hitting supermarket shelves. They'll likely start off as a novelty, or a luxury product, but I'm confident that these products will eventually supplant traditional agricultural meat as a dietary staple. And while you're waiting, if you're concerned about your food's environmental footprint, have you considered cricket? Gram for gram, crickets and mealworms beat out cows and pigs in terms of greenhouse emissions, and you won't have to wait decades for a cricket burger.

So what's next?

Well, I've already seen debates break out online among religious scholars as to whether in vitro pork could qualify as kosher. For me, I'm excited by the prospect of combining this technology with additive manufactories to create 3D printed foods. That's right: we're talking about a replicator, Star Trek style. Except it'll probably work pretty slowly, and it may be kind of gross.

But that's probably decades in the future. In my opinion, everyone's first priority should be fixing that lean-meat thing. Because bacon just wouldn't taste right any other way.

Environmental Impact: Worldwatch Institute | United Nations FCCC
Cultured Meat in the News: The Telegraph | CBC | Scientific American | The Australian
Cultured Chicken Meat Contest: PETA
Eating Insects: Science Now

* Although it should go without saying that this impact is not limited to meat production. A commenter at Skeptic North pointed out that rice farming actually contributes more methane to the environment than raising livestock. For those who are curious, an IPCC publication on the subject of methane emissions resulting from rice cultivation can be found here.

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