Scientists are cooking up new ways to satisfy the world’s ever-growing hunger for meat.
“Cultured meat” — burgers or sausages grown in laboratory Petri dishes rather than made from slaughtered livestock — could be the answer that feeds the world, saves the environment and spares the lives of millions of animals, they say.
Granted, it could take a while to catch on and it will not be cheap.
The first lab-grown hamburger will cost around 250,000 euros (US$345,000) to produce, according to Mark Post, a vascular biologist at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, who hopes to unveil such a delicacy soon.
Experts say the meat’s potential for saving animals’ lives, land, water, energy and the planet itself could be enormous.
“The first one will be a proof of concept, just to show it’s possible,” Post said in a telephone interview from his Maastricht lab. “I believe I can do this in the coming year.”
It may sound and look like some kind of imitation, but in-vitro or cultured meat is a real animal flesh product, just one that has never been part of a complete, living animal — quite different from imitation meat or meat substitutes aimed at vegetarians and made from vegetable proteins like soy.
Using stem cells harvested from leftover animal material from slaughterhouses, Post nurtures them with a feed concocted of sugars, amino acids, lipids, minerals and all the other nutrients they need to grow in the right way.
So far he has produced whitish pale muscle-like strips, each of them around 2.5cm long, less than 1cm wide and so thin as to be almost transparent.
Pack enough of these together — probably around 3,000 of them in layers — throw in a few strips of lab-grown fat, and you have the world’s first “cultured meat” burger, he says.
“This first one will be grown in an academic lab, by highly trained academic staff,” he said. “It’s hand-made and it’s time and labor-intensive, that’s why it’s so expensive to produce.”
Not to mention a little unappetising. Because Post’s in-vitro meat contains no blood, it lacks color. At the moment, it looks a bit like the flesh of scallops, he says.
Supporters of the idea of man-made meat, such as Stellan Welin, a bioethicist at Linkoping University in Sweden, say this is no less appealing than mass-producing livestock in factory farms where growth hormones and antibiotics are commonly used to boost yields and profits.
Moreover, conventional meat production is also notoriously inefficient. For every 15g of edible meat, you need to feed the animals about 100g of vegetable protein, an increasingly unsustainable equation.
All this means that finding new ways of producing meat is essential if we are to feed the enormous and ever-growing demand for it across the world, Welin said in an interview.
“Of course, you could do it by being vegetarian or eating less meat,” he said. “But the trends don’t seem to be going that way. With cultured meat we can be more conservative — people can still eat meat, but without causing so much damage.”
According to the WHO, annual meat production is projected to increase from 218 million tonnes from 1997 to 1999 to 376 million tonnes by 2030, and demand from a growing world population is seen rising further beyond that.
“Current livestock meat production is just not sustainable,” Post says. “Not from an ecological point of view, and neither from a volume point of view. Right now we are using more than 50 percent of all our agricultural land for livestock.