Cultured meat to help solve climate change
Public advice on how to decrease our environmental impact has changed over the years. We know that taking shorter showers or turning off the lights when we leave a room isn’t enough. There’s increasing concern over foodborne viruses, environmental impact and factory farming. I don’t want to use this article to focus on the effect large-scale meat consumerism has on the environment. Instead, I want to look at how this subject is being addressed within the scientific community.
Lab-grown meat is the future of meat production. Scientists have discovered a way of producing real meat without killing animals. This is done by cell culture. The basic idea is, we can grow meat in vitro instead of inside the body. We would produce only the parts of the animal we want to eat, rather than farming entire animals, only to extract certain body parts.
Cell culture starts with stem cells, the basis for all organs and tissue in the body. They have two primary features: they can self-renew and they haven’t yet differentiated. Before a liver cell takes on its specific function, it was a stem cell. They have the potential of differentiating into any other cell. This multi-potential advantage has been applied in medicine. Now, tissue engineering is being developed for food production.
To make a beef burger from a cell, a stem cell is extracted from the cow’s muscle tissue. The cells are placed in a medium – fetal bovine serum – which allows the cells to multiply. When the cells stop proliferating, they differentiate. Gradually, the cells will link up to form filaments of muscle. Like any muscle, it needs to be exercised. The muscle tissue will naturally contract and bulk up. The end process gives several strands of muscle tissue, which are layered together to form a beef burger.
This isn’t simply layering muscle filaments. The taste, the look, the colour and the texture must also be considered. Now that there is no blood in the equation, the red colour must come from beetroot extract.
This project isn’t still on the drawing board, it has already been done. In 2013, the first in vitro hamburger grown from cow cells was unveiled by Mark Post. It was cooked and eaten on live television. Startups working on cultured meat are preparing the first commercial products.
SuperMeat is an Israeli startup, focusing on cultured chicken. I first started working on this project in 2016 and was lucky enough to meet and interview Shir Friedman, SuperMeat’s Vice President of marketing at the time. The startup can’t share their synthesis for intellectual property reasons. However, we know that the method is completely different to beef. We can imagine this simply from how they look – one is ground meat with overlaying strands of beef, compared to whole pieces of chicken breast or liver.
SuperMeat has an ethical advantage. The only component taken from the animal is the cell. The startup uses a different stem cell, a mesenchymal cell, extracted in a non-invasive way. Startups focusing on cultured beef still face ethical issues from how the cell is obtained and the source of the serum.
For Mark Post’s hamburger, the stem cells were taken from a cow embryo and stored in fetal bovine serum. SuperMeat intend to use a cell easier to extract and use a yeast and plant based serum.
The biggest obstacle might be the marketing of lab-grown meat rather than the science. Yet, today’s meat is prodded and injected with antibiotics, additives and preservatives. In vitro meat could reduce factory farming dramatically, relieving pressure on the earth’s resources. Until we change our relationship with meat, viruses will become increasingly common. For some, this means eating less or entirely removing meat from their diet. With cultured meat, there is no need to change our diet. Cultured meat has the potential to answer a growing population’s demand for meat, but in a healthier, more ethical and environmentally friendly way.
Interview with Shir Friedman, Marketing VP at SuperMeat, December 2016.
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Mosa Meat, Mark Post Startup Website, https://www.mosameat.com/our-meat