This week’s discussion was about the exciting possibilities of lab grown meat. With current meat production creating more carbon than the transport industry, and the increasing world population harbouring a growing appetite for meat, the race is on to produce a convincing mimic. It could save the world.
Over 30 teams around the globe are now trying to produce meat in the lab, and currently a Dutch team led by Dr. Mark Post seem to be heading the game.
Growing muscle is easy. Production begins with a single satellite cell, a type of stem cell dedicated to creating muscle, this is placed in a petri-dish along with nourishing lipids, amino acids and nutrients which encourage the cell to grow and divide. The cells are then attached to a collagen gel skeleton where they organise themselves into muscle fibres and then muscle tissue.
Creating a tasty and authentic meat replica is difficult. A fillet steak not only contains muscle, but also blood vessels, nerves, fat, connective tissues and gristle, which all add to its delicious flavour and texture. Post thinks; for a meat substitute to be publicly accepted, it would need to mimic conventional meat in every way.
Research from Oxford University has estimated the environmental impact of cultured meat with very exiting results. Graph below:
Cultured meat would also reduce the spread of livestock related disease like swine flu. However, many challenges need to be overcome before it will become available. Currently the first fully lab grown hamburger is being created in Post’s lab which he estimates to have cost over $250 000, currently a little too expensive for your everyday shop. Nonetheless, the cost price will inevitably decrease with refined methods and technological advances, and Post estimates that lab-grown meat could be in the shops within a decade.
Public opinion may be the toughest obstacle to overcome, to many people lab cultured meat may seem unnatural and weird. Yet you could argue that the way we currently produce meat is also unnatural and weird, with the added negative of vastly harming the planet. When we discussed the paper, everyone (including the veggies amongst us) said they would happily give it a try, but it may be harder to convince your everyday ‘steak and chips kind of bloke’. However, I remain optimistic, and even the Vatican has recently approved of stem cell research.
Ok, so saving the world is all very noble and what-not. But in my view, as an avid foodie, the most exciting thing about this research is the possibility of taking stem cells from any type of existing animal and culturing them to produce their specific meat. Darwin’s favourite; the giant tortoise could be back on the menu, unicorn burgers could be bought for special occasions (half narwhal, half horse), or fairies (butterfly and human!?).
I can’t believe it’s not meat!
Well it is. And it will change how the Earth looks from outer-space.
Post, M. (2012). Cultured meat from stem cells: Challenges and prospects Meat Science, 92 (3), 297-301 DOI: 10.1016/j.meatsci.2012.04.008
Tuomisto, H., & Teixeira de Mattos, M. (2011). Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production Environmental Science & Technology, 45 (14), 6117-6123 DOI: 10.1021/es200130u