It’s fair to say that the United States consumes large amounts of beef, pork, chicken, and turkey with the occasional duck or lamb on the side. As the weather gets warmer and grilling season approaches for those in the colder regions, meat consumption will most likely increase further. Globally, the world consumes a staggering amount of meat products. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations showed meat consumption to be at 220 million tons in 2002, which they expect to rise to about 450 million tons in 2050 .
This increase means that there must also be an increase in animal farms across the globe and an increase in the problems they cause . That means an expansion of agricultural lands into occupied habitats. It also means that there will be an increase in greenhouse gas production as more cows are being raised resulting in more methane gas release. Also, there will be an increase in resources needed to raise these animals ranging from energy demands, food demands, and, most troublesome, an increase in antibiotic usage in a time when we are facing an antibiotic shortage.
The solution to all of these problems can be found in synthetic meats (aka in-vitro meat, cultured meat, clean meat). I suppose you can also be vegetarian or vegan, but that also have some of the same problems concerning agricultural expansion and increase resource use. The idea of synthetic meats is fairly old in modern history. In 1931, Winston Churchill wrote that “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” . Since then, scientists have been working on creating a viable synthetic meat product that could be introduced to the public. In 2013, a team of scientists, led by stem cell researcher Mark Post, created the world’s first synthetic meat patty that was cooked and eaten by a select group of critics . The overall consensus was that the patty tasted like beef but was dry and not too much flavor. Although very expensive ($375,000 for the patty), this represented the reality of synthetic meats: no animals were harmed in the making of it…although some animal products were used.
The process of making synthetic meats is fairly straightforward and is termed the scaffold method . We start by growing some starter cells made of stem cells (usually muscle myosatellite cells) that can be turned into muscle cells. These cells are placed onto a scaffold that will shape and help the cells grow. The scaffold would be something very similar to tissues in the original animal’s body in order to provide the best environment for it to grow. The scaffold is placed in a bioreactor, an enclosed system, where oxygen, nutrients, and a culture medium will be flowing into and out of during the growth process to feed the cells and keep them alive. Finally, growth hormones, environmental cues, and other natural growth factors are introduced to turn the stem cells into muscle cells. Once they have grown into muscle cells, they are collected and used for their intended purpose. This method creates meat products that are used in processed meats like ground meats or sausages .
For more complicated products like a steak or something, you would need additional layers of scaffolds that are considerably more complicated and difficult to produce than the single layer, which slows the development of synthetic meat for consumers. The culture medium is also one of the hardest part of this as it must change for the different types of meat products, which we still need to understand and develop. In order for synthetic meats to become feasible for public consumption and succeed there are other factors that need to be met. As Mark Posts puts it, “…lab or factory grown meat should be efficiently produced and should mimic meat in all of its physical sensations, such as visual appearance, smell, texture and of course, taste” . While making the fat cells and the muscle cells are possible, there is a lot of work still needed to have it match industry standards. That being said, there are many companies researching this. Memphis Meats recently announced that they are able to produce the world’s first synthetic poultry ranging from chicken to duck .
The benefits of this technology greatly outweigh the difficulty of it. In 2011, scientists in Amsterdam and Oxford concluded that synthetic meat production would need 35-65% less energy, use 98% less land space, and produce up to 95% fewer greenhouse gases than normal meat production . We would also be able to prevent the expansion of farms into protected habitats and prevent the destruction of endangered species due to hunting for their exotic meats because synthetic meat can be made to mimic different animal proteins from beef or pork to turtles or ostriches.
Besides environmental benefits, synthetic meats also have many health and social benefits as well. Animal welfare in livestock production is constantly in the news and synthetic meat production would remove many of those issues. Even PETA supports this technology. It would not remove all problems because animals will still be needed to produce things like milk or eggs until we can make those synthetically. The biggest health issues that synthetic meat would address are antibiotic resistance and foodborne illnesses. Synthetic meat would optimally be made in sterile and controlled environments where there are small chances that diseases would affect their production. This would also reduce the chance of foodborne pathogens entering production and reduce the need to use antibiotics on them.
There will be resistance to this product because of how foreign the concept to us. It represents such a shift from what we normally expect and will take considerable time to be accepted by society. We also would need to find ways to completely make the process animal free, since we must use stem cells to start with right now. While the hurdles are great and many, the potential far outweigh the bad, especially since that potential means cheap, readily available, safe, environmentally friendly, and socially conscious meat products.
Photo of fried synthetic chicken from Memphis Meats. Acquired from Science Magazine