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Meat grown in labs is the next logical step for food production

In his essay “Fifty Years Hence”, Winston Churchill speculated, “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken…

Concerns about meat causing harm to animals and environment could be a thing of the past. Fabrice de Nola

In his essay “Fifty Years Hence”, Winston Churchill speculated, “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.”

At an event in London today, the first hamburger made entirely from meat grown through cell culture will be cooked and consumed before a live audience. In June at the TED Global conference in Edinburgh, Andras Forgacs took a step even beyond Churchill’s hopes. He unveiled the world’s first leather made from cells grown in the lab.

These are historic events. Ones that will change the discussion about lab-grown meat from blue-skies science to a potential consumer product which may soon be found on supermarket shelves and retail stores. And while some may perceive this development as a drastic shake-up in the world of agriculture, it really is part of the trajectory that agricultural technology is already following.

Creating abundance

While modern humans have been around for 160,000 years or so, agriculture only developed about 10,000 years ago, probably helping the human population to grow. A stable food source had tremendous impact on the development of our species and culture, as the time and effort once put towards foraging could now be put towards intellectual achievement and the development of our civilisation.

In recent history though, agricultural technology has developed with the goal of securing food supply. We have been using greenhouses to control the environment where crops grow. We use pesticides, fertilisers and genetic techniques to control and optimise output. We have created efficiencies in plant cultivation to produce more plants that yield more food than ever before.

These patterns in horticulture can be seen in animal husbandry too. From hunting to raising animals for slaughter and from factory farming to the use of antibiotics, hormones and genetic techniques, meat production today is so efficient that we grow more bigger animals faster than ever before. In 2012, the global herd has reached 60 billion land animals to feed 7 billion people.

The trouble with meat

Now, civilisation has come to a point where we are recognising that there are serious problems with the way we produce food. This mass produced food contributes towards our disease burden, challenges food safety, ravages the environment, and plays a major role in deforestation and loss of biodiversity. For meat production, in particular, manipulating animals has led to an epidemic of viruses, resistant bacteria and food-borne illness, apart from animal welfare issues.

But we may be seeing change brought by consumer demand. The public has started caring about the ethical, environmental and health impacts of food production. And beyond consumer demand for thoughtful products, ecological limits are forcing us to evaluate the way food is produced.

A damning report by the United Nations shows that today livestock raised for meat uses more than 80% of Earth’s agricultural land and 27% of Earth’s potable water supply. It produces 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions and the massive quantities of manure produced heavily pollute water. Deforestation and degradation of wildlife habitats happens largely in part to create feed crops, and factory farming conditions are breeding grounds for dangerous disease.

Making everyone on the planet take up vegetarianism is not an option. While there is much merit to reducing (and rejecting) meat consumption, sustainable dietary changes in the Western world will be more than compensated for by the meat intake of the growing middle class in developing countries like China and India.

The future is cultured

The logical step in the evolution of humanity’s food production capacity is to make meat from cells, rather than animals. After all, the meat we consume is simply a collection of tissues. So why should we grow the whole animals when we can only grow the part that we eat?

By doing this we avoid slaughter, animal welfare issues, disease development. This method, if commercialised, is also more sustainable. Animals do not have to be raised from birth, and no resources are shunted towards non-meat tissues. Compared to conventionally grown meat, cultured meat would require up to 99% less land, 96% less water, 45% less energy, and produce up to 96% less greenhouse gas emissions.

Also even without modern scientific tools, for hundreds of years we have been using bacterial cells, yeast and fungus for food purposes. With recent advances in tissue engineering, culturing mammalian cells for meat production seems like a sensible advancement.

Efficiency has been the primary driver of agricultural developments in the past. Now, it should be health, environment and ethics. We need for cultured meat to go beyond the proof of concept. We need it to be on supermarket shelves soon.

Join the conversation

28 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    The production of cultured meat would be quite a transition.

    Humans went from hunter-gatherers to farmers, and now to manufacturers of cells for food.

    Growing cells for food may be necessary in the future, and most people going to KFC or some other American fast food franchise may not know what they were eating anyway (or the taste of the food does not enable the consumer to know what it actually is).

    But it is not the farming that is causing the most problems as much as overpopulation.

    Growing cells for food will not reduce the overall natural resource depletion if the population is beyond the carrying capacity of the country, and such a country would be Australia.

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  2. Mike Brisco

    Scientist at Flinders University of South Australia

    Does the artificial meat's culture medium, happen to contain that well-known fix-all of cell culture - fetal calf serum?

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  3. Barry Calderbank

    Farmer

    "there are serious problems with the way we produce food" ?

    Well, not quite true. There are serious issues with SOME of the ways we produce food. And that's a big difference from your claim.

    And, as Dale Bloom points out, the more fundamental problem is population pressure. More and more people wanting abundant supplies of quality food - including out of season produce. And not being prepared to pay the actual cost of producing that food. Hence factory farming - which is the way of producing…

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  4. Tony Xiao

    retired teacher

    Extremely unlikely to have an impact if any on meat production from animal herds when the development of one 140-gram in vitro hamburger has taken two years and cost €250,000 and annual global beef consumption is upwards of 60 million tons.

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    1. Sean Manning

      Physicist

      In reply to Tony Xiao

      Your comment displays a staggering lack of forsight!
      The development of the first iphone cost millions but now everyone has one and they only cost hundreds of dollars. This is how technological progress works.

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    2. Tony Xiao

      retired teacher

      In reply to Sean Manning

      I guess you're right if you believe that biotechology and the time and cost of tissue engineering in science laboratories is akin to the assembling of Iphones in a factory.

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    3. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Tony Xiao

      Tony Xiao,

      There is no reason to expect it won't be.

      The central characteristic of malthusians over the centuries is the extent to which they continually discount the effect of human ingenuity.

      If it wasn't for that pesky habit humans have of solving problems, the Jeremiahs wouldn't be so consistently wrong.

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    4. Sean Manning

      Physicist

      In reply to Tony Xiao

      You don't need to believe that nonsense. You simply need to understand that once a process is discovered it can be made commercial by refining it, making it more efficient and scaling it up. This is the typical sequence of events for the development of any technology. Silicon chips for example? Trillions of dollars have been spent developing and refining those and they only cost cents!

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  5. Michael Croft

    logged in via LinkedIn

    All very exciting science for linear reductionists, but EROEI is the reason it will not be happening any time soon - if ever.

    Nothing comes close to the energy efficiency of ruminants producing high quality protein from pastures growing on nothing but solar energy and rain. The Great Plains of North America had herds of 2 million Bison or more with a symbiotic relationship with the prairie grasses, until Europeans "cultured" the country - and there were a great many herds.

    The mistake industrial farming makes is to turn symbiotic biological and circular systems into linear input output machines. The nett result is that today it takes 8 to 10 calories of energy to deliver one energy of food. This energy inefficiency will be industrial and cultured meats undoing. It is only a matter of time.

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    1. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Michael Croft

      Apparently, Soy sauce, a fermented food providing animal protein from microbes, was developed to overcome amino acid deficiency diseases in vegetarian Buddhist monks.
      It is where vegetarian cattle get most of their protein, and when they ingest too much of the nitrogen required by the microbes, (for their "animal" bodies) then their bio-reagent vessels blow up!
      Ain't nature wonderful.
      Ask any large animal vet about "Bloat".

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    2. Michael Croft

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to James Hill

      I graze animals and have never known bloat to happen in natural grazing systems, but it does happen regularly where synthetic nitrogenous fertilizers are used on pastures.

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    3. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Michael Croft

      It happens when there is an excess of clover, which is possibly the same thing as your synthetic nitrogenous fertilisers.
      Just, please, accept that bloat is not new, and the solution to bloat was discovered and used before the use of synthetic nitrogenous fertilisers.
      Animals selectively gorging on clovers, after having previously adapted their gut flora to a low nitrogen diet will "blow up".
      So while I do not doubt that there are grazing systems in Australia, Michael, such as you have described…

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    4. Michael Croft

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Avi Roy

      Thank you Avi Roy. Two words "conventional" and "European" meats mean that this study only applies to industrially farmed animals. Think about NZ lamb being cheaper than UK lamb and ask why.

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    5. Michael Croft

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to James Hill

      So many assumptions and so much sarcasm that a reply is not warranted. All the best.

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    6. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Michael Croft

      There is no reason why both cultured protein and conventional farming should not exist side by side.

      Once they become economically viable cultured meats are likely, for a while at least, to be confined to mince meat type uses.

      Meat grown in a vat doesn't yet have the structure or texture of muscle, so a lamb chop, a slab of steak or a chicken breast from the factory isn't on the cards yet.

      Further, the calculations about water and grain inputs aren't really relevant when it comes to range grown livestock. These issues are mainly an issue for intensively raised animals.

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    7. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Michael Croft

      Whatever, Michael, it all adds up to no answer doesn't it.
      As expected.

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  6. Nev Norton

    Farmer

    Is this the answer to food security? I imagine this technology could be used to manufacture any bio organism like grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy, fibre including timber, not just meat.
    It seems like it may also create a myriad of problems as well, in both an economic and humanitarian sense.
    I wonder if anyone is doing a cost/benefit analysis.

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    1. Mike Jubow

      forestry nurseryman

      In reply to Nev Norton

      I believe you are right, Nev. I have been involved with in vitro plant production and am vitally interested in in vitro hybridization. I believe the techniques for producing food will change rapidly in the latter half of this century. We, as a community, are doing the pioneer work now that future generations will take advantage of.

      It may cost the proverbial arm and three legs at the moment, but as others have pointed out, technology gets cheaper with time. Some things may never be cheap enough…

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    2. terry lockwood

      maths/media/music/drama teacher

      In reply to Mike Jubow

      "I hope that it gets to the point that you can grow your own steak, chicken, fish or lamb with a kit you can get from Bunnings, the way you can get a kit for growing mushrooms."

      Presumably a kit will be developed to create tissue that mimics the contents of a sausage too? Lips, stomach linings, offal and whatever else goes into a snag? Actually, don't tell me. Don't wanna know.

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    3. Mike Jubow

      forestry nurseryman

      In reply to terry lockwood

      Now that's an idea, a tissue cultured snag. You don't mind if we do a bit of genetic engineering here do you? Or maybe we can cross an ordinary snag with a wild haggis. I believe they are prolific breeders in the highlands of Scotland, but domesticating them has always been a problem.

      Maybe we should run it by Colesworth and see if they will stake us with the R&D cash. That should keep a few dozen researchers busy for a decade or so.

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  7. Henry Verberne

    Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

    I for one will await the development of the food replicators as in Star Trek :)

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  8. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    A brilliant article, very well argued and most informative.
    The best minds are in science; was Winston a scientist, a political scientist?
    Can anyone remember the "NuFood" cartoons fro the New Scientist?

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  9. The Vegan Option

    logged in via Twitter

    It's an interesting and divisive issue. We covered this in <a href="http://theVeganOption.org/">The Vegan Option</a> internet radio show - surveying both vegans and omnivores, talking to a Peta-funded lab meat scientist, and interviewing a philosopher who thought it has the potential to save the animals, and a vegan activist who thinks it's a dreadful idea.

    If it's of interest, you can listen online to <a href="http://theveganoption.org/2012/04/03/lab-meat-nicholas-genovese-david-pearce-jordi-casamitjana/">Lab Meat: Can in vitro meat save the animals?</a>.

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  10. Will Hunt

    Farmer

    Cattle and sheep won't be very happy about this at all. They have carved out a unique evolutionary niche for themselves by being docile & delicious.

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    1. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Will Hunt

      Will,

      Damn,

      Just what I was thinking. You got in first.

      An enormously successful survival strategy too.

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