In vitro meat has been billed as a way to end animal suffering, put a stop to global warming, and solve the world's insatiable demand for animal protein. There's no doubt that our hunger for meat is driving cataclysmic climate change, habitat loss, and overfishing. Things need to change, and change fast. But is meat cultured from animal cells, grown in a lab, and exercised with electric pulses the change we need?
Earlier this year, Mark Post of Maastrict University announced his plan to produce a €250,000 burger. While the cost is astronomical, Post promised that economies of scale would eventually make the lab meat cost-competitive with conventional flesh. However, like jetpacks, underwater cities and orbiting colonies, many scientific breakthroughs that once seemed inevitable have proven to be possible, but economically unfeasible.
We can do it. We just can't afford it. Below are the top four reasons to believe that in vitro meat isn't all it's cracked up to be.
1. We already have plenty of bland, cheap protein
Animals are equipped with blood, tendons, fat, muscle and connective tissue that give their flesh its uniquely tantalizing flavor, not to mention an immune system that keeps them from getting overrun with bacteria, mold and viruses. In vitro meat is never going to compete with a juicy wagyu steak or a fatty chunk of bluefin tuna. Instead, it's being positioned as an alternative to the low-grade pork and flavorless poultry that comes from factory farms.
Here's the kicker: If all we're looking for is a cheap way to produce inoffensive, eco-friendly protein, we've already succeeded. From wheat to soy to peas to amaranth, not to mention "bug-ranching" gastropods, worms and insects, we have an abundance of protein sources at our disposal.
If we're looking for a decent, but not exact, substitute for animal-grown meat, then we're nearly there. Start-ups such as Het Planeet and Beyond Meat are producing meat substitutes that aim to compete with the real thing. Mark Bittman, the New York Times food columnist, recently admitted to being fooled by Beyond Meat's "chicken" strips (pictured above). Bittman notes that while the meat substitute has little flavor of its own, neither do industrially-produced broiler hens. With a product that's "90 to 95 as realistic as chicken", undiscerning, budget-minded customers might not care whether their strips were slaughtered or assembled.
Why start from scratch at the cellular level? Organisms that have been fine-tuned by evolution (and genetically engineered for covenience) are going to one-up our technological capabilities for a very, very long time.
2. It still involves killing animals
The growth medium for the cells – a mixture of sugars, amino acids, vitamins and minerals – is supplemented with fetal bovine serum. This serum is extracted from the blood of unborn calves at the slaughterhouse, with the calf's mother going on to become hamburger meat.
If eliminating animal suffering is the main selling point of lab-grown meat, why not engineer existing animals to feel no pain? Margaret Atwood's fictional ChickieNob is a genetically modified hunk of flesh without any consciousness, and therefore, no capacity to suffer.
3. It's polluting
Artificially exercising all that test-tube meat requires electricity – and most electricity is made from fossil fuels. A pastured-raised steer, in comparison, takes care of its own maintenance, growth and exercise from birth to slaughter.
4. It's expensive
As synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis points out at Discover Magazine, "Cell culture is one of the most expensive and resource-intensive techniques in modern biology. Keeping the cells warm, healthy, well-fed, and free of contamination takes incredible labor and energy, even when scaled to the 10,000-liter vats that biotech companies use."
Although history has often not been kind to those who claim a new technology is unfeasible or unmarketable, "scalability" has long been the deus ex machina of inventions that never end up working out. There's no telling whether in vitro meat will ever be cheap enough to become fare for the common man.
So, is this it for in-vitro meat?
In vitro meat may remain a curio, but as today's mad-scientist molecular gastronomers show, curiosity is a powerful force in food culture. Lab-grown meat could, for instance, allow for a forbidden taste of an endangered species. We might not be able to clone a fully-functioning mammoth, but maybe we could engineer a chunk of mammoth meat. In vitro meat could delve into the deeply weird with a kuru-free way to eat our relatives or ourselves. As the Next Nature Lab's speculative in vitro series demonstrates, this technology is ripe for artistic exploitation. Lab-grown meat will not feed the world, but there's no reason it can't feed the world to us.
Story (mostly) via Discover Magazine. Image via Beyond Meat.