Visions of the year 2020 conjure up electric cars parked outside solar-paneled houses filled with space-minimizing and energy-efficient appliances. Atop the counter sit voice-activated and multitasking appliances next to the& meatmaker? That’s right, your meatmaker—about the size of a breadmaker—is an incubator in which you grow your own meat from a single cell. You can tailor the meat to your own preferences by adjusting fatty acid ratios, texture, and consistency to meet individualized needs. Presto! Push a button, and in a week, you’ve got ground meat that tastes nearly indistinguishable from conventional meat.
This is not Margaret Atwood’s sci-fi bio-wasteland novel Oryx & Crake though it sounds remarkably similar to her warehouse-grown chicken tenders. In 10 years, cultured meat burgers could become reality. “I see cultured meat as a way to protect public health, globally, from nutritional and food-borne diseases,” says Jason Matheny, who holds a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins and is currently working towards his PhD in agricultural policy at the University of Maryland. Matheny sits on the board—alongside scientists in biology, agriculture, public health, and medicine—of New Harvest, a nonprofit founded in 2004 to research the development of meat substitutes, particularly those cultured in vitro (literally in glass) from an animal cell. “As a longtime vegetarian, I’m concerned about the environmental and animal welfare consequences of meat production,” he says.
The process of culturing meat begins by taking somatic stem cells, called satellite cells, from an animal and proliferating them in vitro in a lab while soaking them in nutrients and amino acids. Cells take a few weeks to grow into mature muscle tissue, which is “pretty amazing when you compare it to 2 years for most beef or 6 months for a pig,” says Matheny.
The cells must be “exercised”—stretched mechanically several times per minute by a scaffold that mimics real-life tendons—to replicate normal tissue development. “We’re simply exploiting a natural process of muscle growth,” says Matheny.
Aside from being hormone and toxin-free, cultured meat allows scientists the capacity to manipulate the “good” and “bad” fat ratios. Critics argue that this tinkering with nature is a sort of genetic manipulation. “We’re not altering the genome,” says Matheny. “But you can control the fat content in a way that you could never do in a live animal. You could have ground beef that has the fat profile of salmon. That’s not genetic engineering. It’s taking fat cells from salmon and putting them with muscle cells from beef.”
But don’t humans consume too much meat already? “These pseudo-foods do not belong in the human diet regardless of how high-tech they are,” argues Center for Informed Food Choices director Michele Simon. “This is another techno-fix, and the solution doesn’t lie with technology. Nature has provided us with the food that humans thrive on.”
Both production and consumption of meat in the US is fraught with controversy. Heart disease and cancer are associated with over-consumption of animal proteins and fats, and factory farming is charged with spawning antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria and meat-borne pathogens. Then there are the environmental consequences of commercial meat and dairy operations: pollution, run-off from farm and animal waste, and inefficient use of resources—17 percent of all fossil fuel used in the US is consumed by the food production industry. And we haven’t even touched on animal welfare, often the reason people stop eating meat altogether.
Supporters of cultured meat tout its ability to lighten some of the load. “There will be much less waste generated from producing meat in vitro since it doesn’t involve feeding an entire animal,” says Matheny. “And the breeding industry produces animals that are structurally unstable and doped full of antibiotics. So we’re doing animals, the environment, and human health a favor by finding a safer, cleaner, more humane way of producing meat.” According to New Harvest, cells are capable of multiplying in culture to the extent that a single cell could feed a global population for a year.
Although the concept of growing meat in vitro dates back to the turn of the century when Nobel Prize-winning surgeon Alexis Carrel successfully grew muscle from embryonic chicken heart cells that outlived him, the most notable research on cultured meat was funded by NASA in 2002 to determine if meat could be grown for long-term space missions. Research continues in the US and the EU as scientists attempt to produce a consumer-ready meat product that will not be cost-prohibitive.
It’s hard to predict when that will be. “Right now, if you were a millionaire and you wanted to consistently eat cultured meat burgers, you could do it,” Matheny says. Cost is a problem, with amino acids contributing to the bulk of the expense. Matheny predicts it’ll be 10 years before you’ll see affordable cultured meat in Safeway: “Just like any other technology, if there is consumer demand for it, the cost will decrease because of mass production and economies of scale.”
With a Dutch Sara Lee sausage manufacturer subsidiary buying into lab-grown meat research and development, the food industry may be hungrily envisioning dollar signs as it signs on for cultured chicken nuggets. Will these processed products be healthy? “Corporate control of our food supply is maximizing profit at the cost of our health,” says Simon. “Replacing animal products with lab products is not a natural diet.”
Simon disputes that the solution to world hunger exists in a petri dish. “An analogy is using irradiation to clean up the mess of factory farms,” says Simon. “It’s missing the mark by failing to address the underlying cause of the problem. What we need is a reduction in meat consumption.”
Animal rights groups are warily supportive of the technology, on the grounds that it may one day eliminate factory farming. “From an animal rights perspective, the hope is that people will accept and embrace this technology as a healthier alternative to traditional meat,” says Mat Thomas, staff writer for In Defense of Animals. It may also absolve meat-eaters of guilt. “It’s generally aimed at the meat-eating public, who feels guilty about the conditions of animals in factory farms, and who want to be more environmental,” Thomas says.
Matheny, a vegetarian, says he would eat cultured meat, and Thomas, a vegan, says, “If given the choice between a regular Big Mac and a lab-grown Big Mac, I’d choose lab-grown,” even though he has no plans to convert. “Lab-grown meat is not an organism,” he says. Simon, a vegetarian, emphasizes that humans are not designed to eat a heavily meat-based diet.
“If we really want to solve the environmental problems associated with animal agriculture, the best thing we can do is reduce the number of animal products we eat,” says Matheny. “But I’m not sure we’ll see a vegetarian world in my lifetime, so at least in the interim it’s nice to have a technology that satisfies a growing demand for meat globally but without causing the harm from conventional meat production.”
Franken-foods of the future are becoming reality. Will the consumption of a cultured meat burger sandwiched between genetically modified wheat buns truly nourish our bodies? Vote with your fork.