By Craig Turczynski. Edited by Alexa Dodd.
If you could design the perfect food, what would it be? Highly nutritious, environmentally friendly, affordable, delicious, plentiful and renewable. No doubt you might add a few other adjectives, but I think this covers it for most of us.
Lab grown meat, in theory, could meet all these requirements. But let’s take a closer look at this developing technology so you can decide for yourself.
Below, we have a challenge for the meat producing labs, but first some background information.
What is lab grown meat?
Also called cultured meat or in-vitro produced meat, this product is the result of growing muscle cells in a lab instead of harvesting and cutting whole muscle from a butchered animal. The new method uses an explant of muscle or stem cells, both of which have been harvested from a live animal. Then, using well developed and advanced tissue culture techniques, the tissue is incubated in a culture dish and bathed in nutrient liquid. Meat from virtually any animal could be cultured, but so far, the targets are mostly beef and chicken.
The type of tissue or cell that they start with dictates one of two different methods of culture. Explants of muscle are cultured in a method called the self-organizing technique, which results in a more natural 3-D structure. Stem cells, on the other hand, would be cultured in a scaffold-based method, which at the present would only produce a ground meat type of product. Stem cells could be derived from a variety of embryonic or adult tissues and then differentiated into muscle, but the most suitable type of cell is the Myosatellite cell, which is found in mature skeletal muscle. Since Myosatellite cells are already partially differentiated into muscle and are well characterized, they are the most efficient type of stem cell to use.
What is wrong with conventional meat?
The arguments against conventional meat can fit into 3 main categories:
- Animal welfare: Animals are raised in sub-optimal conditions, crowded and mistreated until they are eventually killed inhumanely.
- Health: Eating conventionally grown meat is unhealthy and results in heart disease, cancer and infectious disease.
- Environment: Large commercial livestock operations contribute to pollution, climate change and are a burden on our natural resources.
Why might lab grown meat be potentially better than conventional meat?
These are the arguments made in favor of lab grown meat presented in the context of the three main categories used above.
- Animal Welfare: Since lab grown meat does not require mass production of animals for harvest, we don’t have to raise them in suboptimal conditions and we don’t have to mistreat or kill them.
- Health: Because lab meat is essentially being constructed from scratch, we can control the process and make a healthier product. For example, we could combine the culture of muscle with nutrient ingredients and fat cells that create a higher omega 3 fat content in the product. The cultured muscle cells could have their genes altered so that they produce the desired nutritional content. We could also reduce the infectious disease risk attributed to mass production of livestock if we no longer had the animals.
- Environment: We would greatly reduce the number of animals needed to feed the world, therefore we would ease the burden on natural resources and reduce pollution.
Are we making a fair comparison?
Most of the information I have found is in favor of lab grown meat. But the information is slightly biased at best. For example, an author will compare the best-case scenario of lab produced meat to the worst-case scenario of conventional meat. (Link)
The animal welfare, health content and environmental concerns of conventionally produced meat can already be improved by using more natural and healthy animal husbandry techniques. Farmers like Joel Salatin and Gabe Brown (and us on a small scale) have seen significant results by using farming practices like mob grazing, mobile chicken structures, rotation and low-till planting, organic and natural methods. Animals can be used to improve the land much like the roaming bison did years ago, if they are managed correctly.
Finally, the nutritional content of meat can also be dramatically altered by how you feed the animal. Animals are fed primarily corn and soybeans because these mass-produced crops are less expensive, but considerably less healthy because of being sprayed with herbicide. The fat, mineral and vitamin content in meat is directly related to how much grass and other feed the animal has been fed. If farmers had the financial resources to invest in healthier feeding methods, they could produce healthier products.
Is lab grown meat really what it is cracked up to be?
Lab grown meat may have a place in society, but I just don’t believe it should be a replacement for meat produced from animals, raised, fed and treated properly. Lab grown meat could be used in special circumstances such as space travel, outposts in the arctic or massive urban areas without access to farmed food. Other technology might even result from it, such as growing human muscle for transplant. But there are still many obstacles to overcome with the technology.
A few of the issues include:
- How can we produce a product that is a composite of muscle, bone, blood vessel, fat, collagen and other connective tissue that has been exercised while receiving nutrition from a digestive system and circulatory system? Anything produced with lab techniques would almost certainly be a simplified version of this product from a nutritional and culinary standpoint.
- Currently the method for culturing cells incorporates a serum source such as fetal calf serum. Fetal calf serum is obtained from fetuses cut out of pregnant cows at slaughter. The fetuses have their blood drained from the heart without anesthesia and it results in their death. Certainly, this is not eliminating all animal welfare concerns.
- Since the lab conditions for culturing muscle favor the growth of living cells, growth of other contaminants such as fungus, yeast and bacteria thrive as well. Many cell culture techniques utilize some antibiotics to prevent this. Therefore, the same concerns about infection and disease resistance could potentially be made about lab produced meat. On the other hand, using proper animal husbandry techniques makes infection and use of antibiotics in animals rare.
- The mass production of lab produced meat would take enormous facilities to completely replace conventional farming. A lab meat manufacturing facility would be wrought with potential issues just like large cattle production facilities are. For example, large labs would also produce a substantial amount of waste: discarded glassware, plasticware, latex gloves, incubators, bioreactors and liquid biohazardous waste, just to name a few. After they match the scale and size of the current meat industry, then we will see how it compares.
- The first burger produced from lab grown meat was reported to cost $300,000 to make. One of the companies reported that the cost was down to about $1000 in 2016. No doubt the costs will continue to come down, but a whole carcass of conventional beef, weighing about 500 lbs, will cost between $1000-4000 based on quality, breed, butchering and farming methods used. That makes the production cost of a conventional burger sized meat patty about $2.00.
Our proposal to the lab producing meat companies, their financial backers or anybody who is interested in a premium product.
Wholesome Farms and Gardens is proposing a challenge to Memphis Meats or any lab producing meat company.
By investing even more in the quality methods we already use to produce our meat products, we can produce a product superior in every way to conventional meat and we are prepared to go head to head with the lab produced product. We would increase our production costs further than what the market currently bears but we would still spend a fraction of what these new companies are currently spending. If they are prepared to accept this challenge, we are confident we will win in both a blind taste test and a full nutritional analysis, while alleviating the environmental and animal welfare concerns.
If the lab meat facilities agree to take us up on this challenge, we will seek financial support from people who would be willing to purchase shares of this premium product in advance of it being produced. After it has been tested, quantities of the meat product would be distributed to the investors equal to the number of shares purchased. We will seek a response from the companies interested in putting their product to the test. Then we will see if their arguments withstand scrutiny and deserve the support they claim.
References: click to access.
The artificial meat factory- the science of your synthetic supper
In vitro meat production system: why and how?