What comes to mind when you read the words vat meat, cultured meat, or in vitro meat? Do you visualize juicy steaks, Petri dishes, science fiction novels, lab coated scientists, or dollar signs? Do you feel excited, queasy, intrigued, hungry, or skeptical?
During a visit home from college last year, my youngest son introduced me to the concept of cultured meat—vat meat as he called it—growing meat without a whole animal. The conversation occurred at the dinner table while we were discussing the environmental and ethical aspects of eating meat. Perhaps I shouldn’t bring up topics like this during meals, but it’s a good time to get family input. I was intrigued and decided to research and write about cultured meat in the future.
Recently I saw the article, The £250,000 hamburger: First test tube-grown beef will be served in London restaurant this week in my Twitter feed. Now seemed like a good time to write the post.
Cultured Meat Background
The ability to grow meat without growing an entire animal has captured the interest and imagination of a diverse spectrum of people including science fiction writers, university researchers, biotech scientists, business people, government representatives, animal rights activists, environmentalists, and venture capitalists. A few examples are provided below.
- A trio of Dutchmen, Willem van Eelen, Dr. Wiete Westerhof, and Willem van Kooten, obtained the first patent for cultured meat in 1999.1, 2, 3
- In a 2005 paper, Pieter Edelman, Douglas McFarland, Vladimir Mironov, and Jason Matheny, described methods for growing cultured meat and its potential environmental and health benefits.4
- Scientists and industry representatives gathered at the Norwegian Food Research Institute in 2008 for the first international symposium on in vitro meat.5
- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) offered a $1 million reward in 2008 for the first person to create commercially viable meat grown from chicken cells. The reward has since been extended to 2014.6
- Startup Modern Meadow was founded in 2011 to develop cultured leather and meat for the commercial market. The company hopes to combine 3-D printing with tissue engineering to produce meat in a recognizable form, like a steak.7, 8
- The first public tasting of cultured meat took place at a London event on August 5, 2013. A beef hamburger was made from cultured meat produced by a team headed by Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands.The burger was deemed to look like a hamburger patty, have a meat-like mouth feel, and taste good. 9
What is Cultured Meat?
Articles about cultured meat involve terms like feedstock, myocytes, stem cells, scaffolding, microcarrier beads, collagen meshwork, culture medium, growth factor, substrate, self-organizing, and bioreactor. What follows is my layperson understanding. If you are interested in technical information about cultured meat production, please see the references and resources sections below.
Scientists grow cultured meat from animal cells without growing the whole animal. Unlike a tofu burger with a patty made from soybean plants, a cultured meat burger patty is made of actual meat.
The part of an animal we think of as meat is basically a muscle (skeletal muscle tissue). Animal muscle cells (myocytes) can be used to grow cultured meat. So can stem cells, which are undifferentiated cells that can be developed into specialized cells, like muscle, and are able to divide indefinitely. Cells can be obtained from living and embryonic animals. Theoretically once the system is up and running, meat could be produced perpetually without involving additional animals, sort of like a yeast starter for bread.
The cells need a place to live and grow. This is where the term in vitro, meaning “in glass”, comes into play. Lab technicians grow the cells in Petri dishes, test tubes, or other containers in a controlled environment. Nutrients are added to grow the cells (culture medium). Since muscle tissue needs something to attach to, cells are grown on an edible surface (scaffolding). Muscles also require exercise so the cultured meat cells are flexed or stretched.
Growing a structured piece of meat like a pork chop or beef steak is more complex and yet to be accomplished.
Benefits of Cultured Meat
In a previous post, I covered the substantial Environmental Impact of Eating Meat. Raising animals for food requires a huge amount of water, fossil fuel, and land (mostly to grow feed crops) and generates greenhouse gases and waste, contributes to air, water, and soil contamination, and results in deforestation and land degradation.
Growing an entire animal for its meat is an inefficient way to obtain protein. For example, on average 25 kcals of fossil fuel energy is expended to produce 1 kcal of protein from animals. Chickens are the most efficient at a ratio of 4:1 (4 kcals of energy for 1 kcal of protein). Pork’s ratio is 14:1, beef 40:1, and lamb is the highest at 57:1.10
An Oxford University study found that compared to conventionally produced European meat, cultured meat could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 78-96%, decrease land use by 99%, and reduce water use by 82-96% depending on the type of meat.11
Fat in meat provides flavor and juiciness but can also contribute to heart disease, diabetes, and an expanding waistline. It may be possible to engineer cultured meat to have good flavor, juiciness, and a more heart-healthy fat.4
Food borne pathogens found in meat such as Salmonella, E. coli, Avian flu, and the like can be eliminated by carefully selecting the source cells and growing the meat in a clean and controlled environment.4
All animals eat other animals, and humans are no different. We are different in that we raise animals specifically for our food and keep them contained.
Humans have an ability to compartmentalize our thoughts and feelings which leads to some interesting and possibly disturbing dichotomies when it comes to food. For instance, we may enjoy eating a piece of fried chicken without ever giving a thought to the chicken that was raised and killed for it.
Some animals raised for food live on farms where they are treated humanely and allowed to roam about. However, most animals are raised on factory farms with thousands of other animals, often in cages so small they can’t turn around, and are fed chemically enhanced grain designed to fatten them up as quick as possible.
I am not opposed to eating meat, but I do think our industrialized method of meat production is harmful to animals, people, and the earth.
Growing a piece of meat from cells taken from a small number of animals would eliminate the need to raise and kill billions of animals. Cultured meat may solve or mitigate the dilemma of eating meat and provide an acceptable option for animal rights activists, vegetarians, and vegans.
Cultured Meat at the Grocery Market
Cultured meat production is in the early stages so don’t expect to see a steer-less steak at your grocery market anytime in the near future.
Scientists are demonstrating it is possible to grow meat from animal cells but only in tiny amounts and for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Producing a 3-dimensional piece of meat like a pork chop is still in the future. Scaling up a cultured meat industry is a formidable task.
The earth cannot sustain our current meat eating habits and certainly not the increasing appetite for eating meat in other countries.12, 13
While we await the development of environmentally-animal-people friendly cultured meat, we can and should make changes now that will reduce the environmental footprint of eating meat. First, eat less meat. Second eat grass fed, pasture raised, and organic meat whenever possible.
The big question still remains to be answered: will people eat cultured meat? I would be willing to try it. Would you?
- Cultivated Meat: The Dutch cultivate minced meat in a petri dish, by Marianne Heselmans (Translated from Dutch) September 10, 2005
- When Will Scientists Grow Meat in a Petri Dish, by Jeffrey Bartholet, Scientific America, May 17, 2011
- Espacenet – Patent WO9931222 Industrial Scale Production of Meat From In Vitro Cell Cultures
- In Vitro-Cultured Meat Production, by Pieter Edelman, Douglas McFarland, Vladimir Mironov, Jason Matheny, 2005
- The In Vitro Meat Consortium – The First In Vitro Symposium (link not working July 2016)
- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – PETA Offers $1 Million Reward to First Person to Make ‘Test Tube’ Meat
- Modern Meadows – Frequently Asked Questions (link not working March 2016)
- Billionaire Peter Thiel’s Latest Investment: 3D-Printed Meat, by Keith Wagstaff, Time, August 16, 2012
- Wikipedia – First-ever public tasting of lab-grown Cultured Beef Burger
- Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment, by David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2003
- Oxford University – Lab-grown meat would ‘cut emissions and save energy’, June 21, 2011
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) – Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) – World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050
- A quarter-million pounder and fries – The Economist, August 10, 2013
- Department of Expansion – Cultured Beef (a short video about cultured meat as a possible solution to environmental and animal welfare issues caused by eating meat)
- MEAT, Now, It’s Not Personal! But like it or not, meat-eating is becoming a problem for everyone on the planet, Worldwatch Institute, 2004
- Modern Meadow
- New Harvest
- Possibilities for an in vitro meat production system, by M. Betti Datar, Innovative Food Science and Emerging Technologies, 2010
- Steak of the Art: The Fatal Flaws of In Vitro Meat, by Christina Agapakis, Discover, April 24, 2010
- The In Vitro Meat Consortium (link not working July 2016)
- Twitter – Follow the conversation using hashtags: #culturedmeat , #invitromeat, #culturedbeef, #globalfoodsystems
- Wikipedia – In Vitro Meat