What will the meat of the future look like?
Agri-food research faces a key question: how to provide our crowded planet with very cheap food in the years to come? One answer lies in creating the meat of the future in the laboratory and taking its main components from chemistry and technology.
Meat in vitro
The new meat has emerged through tissue engineering techniques to replace animal flesh, and its manufacture has been underway and controlled since 2008. The first foodstuffs manufactured in vitro were based on lamb and beef. Muscle is collected from a bovid—such as a cow or a sheep—and cultured, to end up as a hamburger. This scientific steak made its public debut on August 5, 2013, in a presentation by a laboratory in the Netherlands. So far, the process doesn’t offer the prospect of profitability, but the technology is improving and the expansion of stem cell incubators is now being planned.
The food industry says there are potentially significant environmental gains to be achieved by reducing the ecological footprint and slowing down the release of greenhouse gases. In addition, this new meat, produced in vitro, needs much less water (-96%) and energy (-7% to -45%) than the meat we eat today which is produced through intensive farming. The industrial development of these products—which according to official pronouncements won’t harm our health when we consume it—could also slow the process of deforestation as well as the monopolization of arable land. Rising grain costs could also be offset by this futuristic solution. Despite these gains, some concerned figures are warning of the potential this new product offers for vastly increased profits, by inflating the total turnover of the giants of the agri-food industry. Others, until now without financial interests in this industry, are investing en masse. Among them are Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and one of the wealthiest people on the planet, and Peter Thiel, an investor who supported both PayPal and Facebook. The co-founder of Google, Sergey Brin, is another who’s chosen to invest in the idea of the artificial steak.
Meat made in 3D
In the United States, scientists have developed another artificial meat, also grown in the test tube, but printed out in three dimensions. The recipe seems simple: build a culture of stem cells and fill a biological print cartridge with these cells, bound by collagen. The technology of a 3D printer is used to print living tissue layer by layer to produce the desired thickness of steak. A New York-based company called Modern Meadow has come up with this futuristic—and uncertain—project. Despite the uncertainty, financial support has flooded in, including that of Sergey Brin who believes strongly in the potential success of this technology and the benefits that it could create. The bio manufacturing process seeks initially to convince the general public to accept the production of fake leather because so far the scientists haven’t been able to give artificial meat any authentic taste, any flavour of the real thing. One of the major concerns comes from the complexity of reproducing a smooth blood supply. Despite some ethical disagreements, PETA, People for The Ethical Treatment of Animals, the largest organization in the world promoting and defending the rights of animals, supports these innovations. PETA’s primary aim is the end of all animal suffering, including farmed cows, lambs, pigs and battery farmed chickens. The organization had even promised a reward of a million dollars to any researcher who successfully recreated the taste and texture of real meat. Another proviso was that this product could be manufactured on a large scale.
From mixed meat glue sausages to mechanically separated meat, intensive research to create the meat of the future goes on. Everybody working in the environmental arena recommends above all that we reduce consumption to enjoy better quality meat. Or we could replace conventional meat as a source of protein altogether by eating worms, beetles and butterflies. Are we ready to make that choice just yet?