Lab grown meat: a low-fat, low-carbon, cruelty-free future?


Lab meat is grown in a petri dish in an incubator. Cells are grown as mono layers in a nutritious soup (the culture medium). The red colour indicates the ph level, or the acidity of the medium.


The technology isn't fully developed yet, but when meat really can be grown in a lab it's going to turn all our arguments about carnivorous diets on their heads...

Veteran US food campaigner Michael Pollan famously said: 'Food should be alive, and that means it should eventually die'.

A simple truth, but how does it apply to the emerging science of laboratory-grown meat? Is something that originates from a stem cell, is grown inside nutrient-rich liquid, and is mechanically stretched to increase its size and protein content, ever really alive? Once cooked, what would in vitro meat be like - steak or roast? Drumsticks or chicken breast? Gammon or chops?

There is no end to the types of questions 'cultured', 'in vitro' or 'lab grown' meat throws up. But supporters claim the technology will help bring an end to many of the ills for which the conventional meat industry is blamed, from excessive greenhouse gas emissions to pandemic zoonotic diseases, food-borne illnesses and widespread farm animal abuse.

At least another five to 10 years will pass, scientists say, before anything like it will be available for public consumption, but in vitro technology has the potential to revolutionise the meat industry - while catering to the demands of the world's increasing population of hungry carnivores.

The way it works

The first taste of this technology will likely be boneless, processed meat, similar to hamburgers or chicken nuggets. Lab-grown steak, chicken wings, or pork chops at this stage, are out of the question.

'Right now the tissues can only be grown in very thin layers. The way that live animals grow thick tissue is with blood vessels, but creating blood vessels in a lab is still technically impossible,' says Jason Matheny, director of New Harvest a non-profit organisation that funds in vitro meat research.

In vitro meat uses techniques to engineer tissue, and is not the same as animal cloning. It works by taking a myoblast, a precursor to muscle tissue, and immersing it in a culture medium (a nutritious soup of water, sugar, amino acid, vitamins and minerals in which the cells can grow). As the myoblasts fuse together, muscle fibres are formed.

All of this takes place inside a bioreactor, a fancy name for something as small as a petri dish or as large as an industrial 10,000-litre vessel. Producing the tissue takes between four and five weeks, whether or not you are making one kilogram or one tonne.

‘You depend upon a stock of stem cells that you are constantly recharging, it could be poultry, pork or beef,' says Matheny. So, how long until it goes off? 'That's actually an open question. It should have a longer shelf life because you are producing it under more sterile conditions. But this aspect hasn't been looked at.'

Green meat

It's too simplistic to say that all meat eating is harmful to the environment, but what's clear is that meat production at the moment has an enormous environmental footprint that will only grow as the industry grows, as anticipated, to twice its current size by 2050.

So could in vitro meat mitigate some of this impact? Hanna Tuomisto, of the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, and M. Joost Teixeira de Mattos of the University of Amsterdam have performed a life cycle assessment of cultured meat production (funded by New Harvest and currently in the process of submission to a scientific journal) which found cultured meat had 80-95 per cent lower GHG emissions, 98 per cent lower land use and 90-98 per cent lower water use in comparison to conventionally produced European beef, lamb, pork and poultry.

The study did not involve direct data, but was instead scaled up to an industrial level using lab data. As such, and because the technology is still so young, it is hard to know how robust its conclusions are, but it would seem likely that in vitro meat would fare well on these fronts compared to conventional meat.

This would put it on a par with other, more environmentally-friendly meat alternatives like Quorn, a popular meat substitute made from mycoprotein (a fungus fermented in a glucose solution). In an initial life cycle analysis performed in conjunction with De Montfort University, Quorn was found to produce considerably less greenhouse gases than beef and also requires significantly less land.

Clean meat

But meat has a particular taste and texture that many people feel is without substitute. Matheny argues that creating meat in vitro offers many health advantages, but that consumers - in America and, increasingly, elsewhere - must face up to where most meat actually comes from.

'In the US, about 99 per cent of the meat produced comes from factory farms, but people still have this unrealistic picture of a bucolic farm where their meat is grown. When one looks at the reality - tens of thousands of animals, confined very tightly, living in their own waste, in giant metal sheds, doped full of antibiotics and growth promoting hormones - then I think producing meat in sterile facilities under tightly controlled conditions looks like an advantage.'

He's not alone in this view. Animal abuse in factory farms has so motivated activists that animal rights group PETA is offering a $1 million prize to the person who comes up with an edible in vitro meat product.

PETA Director of Special Projects, Poorva Joshipura says: 'In vitro meat, when fully developed, will provide the meat addict with all the taste and texture of the real thing, but with none of the suffering, filth and environmental devastation, making it the most progressive food source possible'.

In vitro meat would also be free from hormones and antibiotics as well as contaminates such as salmonella and campylobacter. Its fat content could be tightly controlled and, because you could have a bioreactor anywhere in the world, meat production could become more dispersed. Matheny says they've seen 'significant interest' in the technology in Asia [Singapore and India in particular] where meat consumption is rising dramatically.

Future meat market

In 2005, researchers from three Dutch universities received a grant from the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs to further in vitro meat technology. They were tasked with overcoming two big scientific obstacles that prevent in vitro meat from being commercialised: developing the particular stem cells needed, and finding an economically viable alternative to the existing culture media.

Bernard Roelen, of Utrecht University, who is involved in the stem cell research says that they are just continuing the research of Dutchman Willem von Eelen, an entrepreneur who in the 1950s developed the idea of using tissue culture to produce meat, although he naïvely thought that you could take muscle cells and culture them. Roelen's work studies how to culture the skeletal muscle cells from specific animal stem cells. Dutch researchers have also started to develop a culture medium that they say will be much less expensive than the one currently produced for biomedical purposes, using micro-algae and photosynthesis.

They are now applying for another government grant - this time with the Ministry of Agriculture. Roelen says industry is hesitant to commit funding, with companies saying they need more evidence the technology is feasible before they invest. An initial collaboration with the meat business Meester Stegeman (at the time part of Sara Lee Foods Europe and now a Smithfield Foods subsidiary) was a condition of the first grant, and has now ended.

Even so, it's likely that the expense and physical form of early in vitro meats will mean that it will be brought to market by big food companies. Jim Thomas, of watchdog group ETC writes in the Ecologist, ‘If test-tube meat hits the big time, we will likely know by its appearance in a Big Mac or when agribusiness buys out the patent-holder.'

However, while Matheny says that meat processors had shown interest in the initial research, he disputes the idea that Big Ag would be able to exert as much control as it does in the current industrial meat industry.

‘It's unlikely for there to be a monopoly - it is hard to buy up all the technology. There are lots of different pieces of technology involved in producing cultured meat, which means that there are lots of different systems and processes to optimise, which also means there are different intellectual property issues [different culture media formulations, different bioreactor designs] to carve out.'

Family farms in danger

In vitro meat bears no resemblance to food production as we know it - it doesn't involve a farmer, land, or even a real animal. At the same time, when considered next to the factory farms exposed in films like Food Inc. or Pig Business - it is cruelty-free, low carbon and potentially environmentally-friendly.

What we would stand to lose with cultured meat is the whole idea of provenance - the local, well-reared, skilfully butchered cut of meat. And with it, the kinds of small, family farms and communities that support it.

Unsurprisingly, those involved in supporting small farms are sceptical. Soil Association spokesperson Clio Turton says: ‘We haven't seen any evidence that this is safe for human consumption. There may be unforeseen consequences of growing meat this way. Growing meat in a petri dish is odd. We can't imagine it would replace meat production in the UK.'

It is so odd that it almost seems beside the point to wonder what it tastes like. Does it actually taste any good? 'It's not an approved foodstuff so it is hard to get anybody to own up to tasting it,' says Matheny.

But everyone I asked who is involved in developing the technology says that they would eat in vitro meat willingly. Matheny, who is a vegan, says he would eat it. Roelen points out that, as is the case with processed meat, the taste is not from the actual meat - it's in the way it's processed and the ingredients added. 'Give it some garlic, pepper and salt and there'd be no difference,' he says.

Matilda Lee is the Ecologist's Community Affairs Editor

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