Test-tube meat is the new frontier in fighting climate change

Lab Grown Burger - Mike Licht

By ARMAN KAZEMI

May 29, 2014

Ever since Dutch scientist Mark Post gave the first public tasting of his test tube hamburgers in London last August, the case has been a good one for in vitro meat.

Similar to the process of converting primordial stem cells into body parts for organ transplants, so-called cultured meat uses muscle tissue from living cows to create a substance identical in feeling and texture to ground beef.

Taking the technological innovation of their compatriot in due course, two Dutchmen, a philosopher and a biotechnologist, now envision a future of village-size factories happily feeding the world's population on petri burgers.

Picture animals freely living out their lifespan in the yard outside the village meat factory while the meat-hungry masses drive through the countryside guiltlessly pointing out grazing cows to their kids in the back seat.

Cor van der Weele and Johannes Tramper have highlighted the practicability of this utopian vision in a paper published in the June issue of Trends in Biotechnology. With the world's population set to balloon to 9.5 billion by 2060, and the associated spike in the demand for meat coupled with reduced agricultural resources with which to cultivate it, van der Weele and Tramper argue that industrial food engineering labs may be the only viable model for the meat-eating future.

Once the “yuck” factor of test tube meat is overcome, they say, most people will embrace the social, moral and environmental benefits of eating out of a petri dish.

“The idea of cultured meat invariably inspires discussions on the drawbacks of factory-farmed meat,” the authors write. Once that connection was made, most respondents noted that factory farming “is not very natural either.”

While the process itself may seem unnatural, it's the natural world and our place within it that stand to benefit, the authors say.

Their biorector model of farming – which involves suspending animal cells in a growth medium and incubating them with “a robust continuous stem-cell line” from live animals – stands to the reduce land and water use associated with the meat industry, as well as overall greenhouse-gas emissions, by 90 percent. Under their model the energy used by the world's farms would likewise plummet, by 70 percent.

According to an article in the Guardian, 30 percent of the Earth's usable land is dedicated to growing feed for farm animals, as opposed to the 4 percent that directly nourishes humans. Furthermore, the Earth's biomass of livestock is almost twice that of humans', and it accounts for 5 percent of the world's CO2 and 40 percent of its methane emissions, the more toxic of the two.

The potential to completely eradicate these figures through the village factory system could convert many a disinclined palate.

But given that Mark Post's famous slaughterless meat burger cost a grand total of $300,000, economic feasibility, as van der Weele and Tramper point out, “may turn out to be the greatest challenge for cultured meat.”



Photo Credit: Mike Licht