Craving Food in the Lab

Craving Food in the Lab

Ibraheem Shahadat   April 15, 2013

Many companies, organizations, and corporations make  decisions every day which influence the shaping of humanity’s future. As early as 2001, companies invested great interest in creating food as a viable solution for the future of humanity. In 2008, PITA, (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), sponsored a million dollar  award for any researcher who could produce lab-grown, in-vitro, or cultured meat. In June of 2012, PETA’s challenge was swept across ten states. As the deadline of their request approached, it became clear that no one was able to create lab grown meat.   However, later on that year, in October, PETA   announced the first taste test of in-vitro hamburger meat. The applications of such a test would later show various companies the potential for marketing cultured meat to the public.

Mark Post, head of the dutch team focused on creating in-vitro meat hopes to produce his product by using cow stem cells, proteins, myocytes, and various organs. They carefully place stem cells in  petri dishes  which are then put into a container to create muscle cells. The muscle cells grow over time to become a muscle whose dimensions are about one centimeter wide, two centimeters long and a millimeter thick. The small piece of product is described to have an off white color and to appear like calamari and taste bland. The reason for their bland taste is because the produced muscle isn’t pre-exposed to natural substances such as fat, blood, hormones, and other biological factors which govern meat. The Dutch team hopes to expand their experiment to add blood and fat in the growth process and create larger patty like sizes of meat rather than small calamari sized meat. This accomplishment will cause more appeal to public interest.

Another researcher in this field, Gibbore Forgacs who specializes in tissue engineering at the university of Missouri, is working on creating in-vitro meat. Modern Meadows, the outfit started by Forgacs aims to produce meat which is delicious and also inexpensive for society. Their goal is to gain the approval of both  the people who want to eat meat but are restricted by  personal constrains such as religion, and to provide a solution for the  occurring hunger crisis.

This idea of creating lab grown meat is not new. In 1931, before Winston Churchill was elected prime minister, he predicted that by 1981 “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” In 2001, 20 years after Churchill’s prediction, Morris Benjaminson of Touro College came up with an idea to take freshly cut muscles from a goldfish and put it into a vat of nutrient rich fetal bovine serum. This serum allowed the live muscle cells to divide and result in a 14% increase in mass. Although his experiment produced more mass, the audience to which he presented his experiment refused to eat the cooked product. AFter seeing his audience’s reaction, he came to the same conclusion many seemingly hopeless experiments come to, and that’s to deem the experiment useful for astronauts. AFter hearing about his idea, PETA supported his findings and encouraged further research into the experiment. In 2008, Norway hosted a conference on test tube meat. The conference released a study stating that for the cost of $5,000 a ton of meat could be produced. This cost for production is feasible to compete on the economic basis with regular meat. As to date, there are 30 different companies working on this project.

So how competitive would this meat actually be on the market? In illinois 2007, the cost for raising a pound of beef was about 65 cents. The retail price of the beef in supermarkets was $2.88 a pound. The markup is roughly 4.5%. If we looked at the $5,000 per ton cost of lab grown meet and applied the same 4.5% markup, we would arrive at a cost of about $11.00 per pound. Which is especially competitive if marketed correctly.

Forgacs’ Modern Meadows is using a technique slightly different than Post’s. By using a 3D printer, Modern Meadows sprays successive layers of something called bio ink onto a muscle to further build its mass. Bio ink consists of various components of meat such as muscle cells. The complexity of this project is grand considering the goal of balancing fuel, salt, minerals and hormones of whatever cells remain alive. Although signs of success are apparent, both Post and Forgacs are in compliance that society’s first introduction to engineered food will not be with in-vitro meat. Rather, it will be with some smaller ingredient such as flower used to make larger dishes.

The society would find some great value in the success of this research. One of which is that lab grown meat would have about 78 to 96% fewer greenhouse gasses. it would also take up 99% less land to raise. It would consume 82 to 96% less water and it would reduce the 18% of the world’s greenhouse gasses which come from livestock. There exists a large gas omission problem in the livestock industry. The first main source is methane gas from cow manure. The second comes from the petroleum used to take care of the industry. The in-vitro meat would also be very energy officiant. We now use 100 grams of grain to produce 15 grams of meat. This means that 85% of the energy transferred from plants to animals is lost. The estimate percentage  of energy efficiency for in-vitro meats is 50%. Further research shows that a pound of beef necessitates 2500 gallons of water, 12 pounds of grain, 35 pounds of top soil. With respect to energy, this is equivalent to a gallon of gas. Scientists predict that meat production will have to double in the next 40 years because of increasing incomes around the world. Typically, when your GDP increases, your consumption of meat skyrockets. In the example of China and India whose GDP are on the way up, the general consensus seems to state that the demand of meat in these countries is going to increase. Unfortunately however, though the demand for meat increases, the amount of land available to serve these needs is minimal. 70% of dry land on earth is used for either grazing or livestock. The question posed is what do we do as there isn’t much more land left for grazing cattle? The pour solution is that the price of meat will continue to increase. The ideal solution would be to resort to in-vitro meat. But, despite its bland taste and its visual representation to squid, potential for progress give sign in its stage of early development. Jason Matheny, director of New Harvest, a non for profit research organization said that in-vitro meat would offer health advantages because it would be easier to control pathogens in a lab. Also, the amount of fat in the meat could be systematically controlled, which ultimately makes the meat healthier.

In conclusion, although lab-grown meat has many obstacles to surpass before it becomes a pragmatic substitute for actual meat, the fear from researchers seems to be the marketing aspect of the product. How can we convince people to by something synthetic over something natural? Especially if, as of now, concerns don’t just govern the economic cost of the meat, but its palatable compatibility.


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