Those who follow the social media can very often read triumphalist headlines about a new technology that, we are told, is going to revolutionize our agriculture, our environment and our table: in vitro meat.
In most of these articles (here, here and here) this product is represented as futuristic, like a miraculous food that is going to end animal suffering, as well as improve the environment, and will be safer and cheaper than the meat as we know it today. According to these pieces of news, in a few years, artificial meat will fill the shelves of our supermarkets. Moreover, we are told, as irrefutable proof of this new future in which this product will be available in all butcher shops and will be present in all recipes, the fact that some of the most prestigious entrepreneurs in the world have made investments in this technology.
Figure 1: Culture of cells in a laboratory
Now, what are the real facts beyond the press hype? Does laboratory meat really have so many advantages? Is it going to remove our meat, as well as milk, fish, and eggs, as we know them today from our tables and restaurants?
Let’s analyze in detail what the companies that are trying to develop this product promise and let’s observe, through the available scientific data, if the benefits are really so important and also whether it is true that this technology is as close to our kitchens as promised.
However, I want to start with a disclaimer: the information available is limited. The companies that work with this technology have the information – logically – very close to their chests. So this article is based on the public data made available so far.
Is it possible?
Growing cells in a laboratory is no mystery to experts. Lots of researchers use this technique to prove the effect of drugs, study the toxic impact of multiple substances as well as to better understand how genes and cellular metabolism occur.
In 2002, NASA cultured in vitro golden carp cells as a potential food source for astronauts. A year later the Dutch “bio-artist” Oron Catts managed to grow frog cells and served them at a banquet in France (the donor frog attended the banquet as a guest). However, it would not be until 2013 when the famous lab grown hamburger developed by the University of Maastricht in Holland made its formal presentation at a massive press conference in London. That hamburger had a processing cost of 250.000€.
Figure 2: The first in-vitro hamburger fried
Since then, other companies have presented samples of products with similar characteristics: meatballs and chicken nuggets are some of the best-known examples.
The production costs of these products has come down sharply. These companies give disparate data: from $350/lb to $37/lb. Although still far from the price of a kilogram of minced beef (the most expensive one in the market) which can be purchased for 3-4$/lb. We also have to consider that the price of livestock products continues to decline as genetics and the animal’s feed productivity keeps improving.
Figure 3: Animal’s food continues to lower its prices (adjusted due to inflation)
Will these companies become competitive? Some announce that they will place their products on the shelves in a few months, conversely, Mark Post, the scientist who developed the hamburger presented in London in 2013, predicts that scientists are 2-3 decades away from this technology to become a reality.
Figure 4: Mark Post, scientist who developed the first in vitro hamburger
There are reasonable doubts about the feasibility of the process to produce in vitro meat in industrial quantities as it is very complex and presents numerous uncertainties. Let’s take a look:
Cultivating cells requires providing them with nutrients: vitamins, amino acids, as well as growth factors and hormones like insulin, growth hormone, thyroid factors. All these molecules are obtained from fetal bovine serum (FBS). This serum, as its name suggests, is extracted from an unborn bovine fetus which contains all the factors previously mentioned, which will allow cells to grow in vitro. Although some cell lines can grow without bovine serum, nowadays it is an essential component for most cell cultures.
Figure 5: Fetal bovine serum sample
FBS remains a fundamental ingredient for all companies that produce artificial meat, as stated by entrepreneurs and technicians who work with this technology. In fact, as recognized by managers and scientists who research this field, this is a key limiting factor. If they cannot grow artificial meat without FBS it is very unlikely that their efforts will be completed with a commercial product, due to the cost (serum is sold at around $ 1,200 /L) and because the “meat” produced would not be free from animal slaughter.
On top of the nutrients, it is necessary to keep the cells at an adequate temperature and to prevent the cultures from being contaminated with bacteria, viruses or fungi. To achieve this, antibiotics or other antiseptics should added to keep cells uncontaminated. How would we then eliminate these compounds? An animal does this through its liver and kidneys, so that when it reaches the market, the meat has no residues. But a cell culture has no such mechanism.
Other technical considerations can add difficulties to this initiative: in order to grow, the cells need to have somewhere to lean on, they do not grow by freely floating in the nutrient medium. To do this, they must be supplied with a matrix. The scaffolding on which the cells will grow ought to be composed of a material that will allow them to organize themselves. The ideal component, until now, seems to be bovine collagen, which would be an animal added element when what these start-ups want is to produce meat without the help of animals. An animal source scaffolding would be a contradiction in itself, as it happened with the addition of FBS. Besides, once the cells are “harvested”, that matrix would be part of the final product, which would potentially modify the flavor, tenderness, etc. of the final product.
Figure 6: Observe the reticular structure used as an scaffolding for cells to grow on it (phosphorecent points)
Another factor that involves a technical difficulty is genetic stability. Keep in mind that 1 Kg of meat equals to 8 x 1012 cells. The many divisions may originate carcinogenic cells. Although these cells do not have to be harmful, as they would be digested as all the others, experts say that it would be necessary to conduct trials in order to have certainty that they do not pose any health risks.
Moreover, muscle fibers, when growing under ambient oxygen conditions, do not express the red color of myoglobin, but, on the contrary, express a yellowish hue. This does not alter its nutritional properties, but it will certainly affect their aspect, unless artificial pigments are used.
Finally, the flavor of the meat is the result of the mixture of different cell types: muscular, nervous, but, above all, fat. Fat cells, in correct proportions, give the meat its unique flavor. Growing different cell lines to provide this variety of tissues is another challenge for this industry. On the other hand, the composition of meat has numerous micro nutrients such as vitamin B12 and certain minerals such as iron that have to be added, in very measured proportions, to obtain a product with the nutritional properties, as we know it.
Today, these challenges remain unsolved. In fact, the few experimental tests made public show that this type of meat will have to agglomerate in the form of hamburgers or nuggets, precisely the cheapest products on the market where it is more difficult to compete for price.
Is it meat?
Is artificial meat really identical to the meat we eat today? This is not a trivial question because a legal battle is lurking on whether or not laboratory meat should be called as such. We have already had this experience in Europe where the EU court ruled that only milk from animals can be defined as such and that products made of soybeans and other ingredients cannot use this denomination.
Beyond what the courts should determine in the future; the meat that comes from an animal that has been raised and slaughtered for that purpose is not only made up of muscle. It also contains fat cells, nerves, blood vessels, collagen and, sometimes, tendons. In addition, once the animal is sacrificed, the muscle loses its oxygen supply and undergoes a metabolic process by which glycogen is transformed into lactic acid, which leads to a significant reduction in muscle pH, which activates a series of chain reactions that will confer meat with its final properties of tenderness and flavor.
Lab-grown meat will lack most of these components and will only contain muscle fibers (myocytes) and possibly fat cells (adipocytes). We must not forget that muscles have a function: to generate movement and thanks to this, the tissue develops its own hardness, consistency and flavor. All this would be absent in artificial meat – although some companies claim that they can mimic this effect by electrically stimulating cultured cells.
It is possible that a large number of vitamins and micro-minerals will be left out of the composition of the artificial meat, as we have already indicated.
Therefore, although in vitro meat is composed mainly of muscle fibers, just like natural meat, there are many doubts about whether the final product of the cell culture will have the similar physical-chemical, nutritional and organoleptic properties. In fact, companies that invest this way of production are aiming at products such as sausages, meatballs or hamburgers all of them based on minced meat, which is easy to mix with additives, dyes and flavorings.
Is there an advantage?
According to those who see lab-grown meat as the new paradigm in food industry, what is wrong with conventional meat? They fundamentally allege three disadvantages that artificial meat could improve:
- A high environmental impact of meat production as we know it (greenhouse gases, water consumption, and desertification, among others)
- Animal suffering (these companies argue that the animals on farms have miserable, secluded lives that are not worth living)
- Risk of food-borne diseases (livestock carry microorganisms on their skin and intestines that can affect people in certain circumstances) and the risk of epidemics originating from animals (since some diseases can be transmitted from animals to humans).
Let’s take a look at what the data says over these objections which are raised about natural meat.
It is alleged, as an axiom, that lab-grown meat will have a much smaller impact on the environment than traditional meat. According to FAO data, global livestock production emits 14.5% of total greenhouse gases, it uses high energy resources, and a lot of surface area and water. Can we be sure that all of these inputs will drastically go down if real animal meat is substituted with artificial meat?
The available studies in this field – which are just a few – show these results:
They all agree that laboratory meat will require the use of great amounts of energy, greater than the production of chickens. When compared with pork production, in vitro meat it is at a tiny advantage or at a disadvantage, depending on which study is considered.
Figure 7: In vitro meat of energy consumption (2 studies) versus the energy use of traditional cattle. Source: adapted from Mattick et al.
Regarding carbon footprint, in-vitro meat doesn’t have any advantage over the production of chicken or pork, and one study suggests artificial meat carbon foot print is greater than that of cattle production.
Figure 8: Emission greenhouse gases in in vitro meat (2 studies) versus the emission of gases from different types of livestock. Source: adapted from Mattick et al.
A German study that compares chicken production and all alternatives to meat production identifies laboratory meat as the alternative with the greatest impact on all environmental parameters.
Figure 9: The environmental impact of the alternatives to chicken meat. In vitro meat has the greatest impact on all aspects. Source: adapted from Smetana et al.
We have to keep in mind that maintaining a reactor where muscle cells multiply requires a lot of energy: the culture should be at 37-38ºC. Besides, nutrients (amino acids, vitamins, oxygen, etc.) should be added regularly, and waste materials such as urea that the cells synthesize as part of their metabolism must be removed (the calculations were made on a hypothetical reactor of 15000 L). The results are clear.
If this all was not enough, the studies omit three important points (partially recognized by the authors):
- Animals produce many things other than meat, they have multiple industrial uses. Churchill said that it was absurd to produce a full chicken when only the thighs and breasts were used. The great English politician was not very knowledgeable about livestock because the truth is that no animal part is wasted at all. Everything that we do not incorporate into the food chain finds multiple uses in the industry. Collagen is removed from the bones and be used to produce printing paper or film for x-rays; the skin extracts are used to manufacture adhesives; fertilizers are made from hairs and engine anti-freezer or wax polisher is produced with fat. Therefore, if artificial meat displaced traditional livestock production, all these products would have to be manufactured from other raw materials and that would also mean emission of gases, use of energy, water and land surface.
- Another factor that these studies do not come to value is what we would do if all the plant by-products that are fed to animals had to be destroyed. According to FAO studies, 86% of all the feed consumed by animals is made from vegetable waste that is not edible by humans: fruit peels, cereal debris, cottonseed, soybean cake and many others. Six thousand million tons that without the animals would contaminate our planet.
- Finally, shrub cleaning, especially by ruminants, is a key factor to avoid forest fires. Very recently, California has been devastated by fires. There are some studies that point out that the absence of livestock is a determining factor in the loss of forest mass in this, and other regions, due to fire due to the role livestock has in foliage and shrub cleaning
It could certainly be pointed out that when lab-grown meat technique is well underway it would be possible to reduce its negative effects. This is probably correct, but we must consider that this is also true for livestock, since its negative impact is greater in developing countries, where production is less technified.
Figure 10: The emission of greenhouse gases in cattle is decreasing where this production is more technified.
We enter a field that goes beyond science because, although there are numerous studies on animal welfare, some consider that any animal, for the fact of being in a farm, must endure unacceptable living conditions.
However, in a farm, animals have food, they are safe from bad weather, they receive medical attention, have a controlled temperature and they are safe from predators. There is no question that it is necessary to continue with the efforts that guarantee and improve animal welfare, but it is unfair to conclude that the domestic animals of production suffer without exception, , as anyone who has had occasion to visit a few farms, understands immediately.
If one day, artificial meat completely replaces the natural one, it would mean the disappearance of billions of animals. Certainly, many of them, especially in the third world, live in manifestly improvable conditions, but many others have a good quality of life that they simply could not enjoy if their existence ceased to make sense.
The link with animals in agriculture would be lost. It would undoubtedly mean a profound social change for many communities. Undoubtedly, humankind has overcome other changes of similar depth, and would possibly overcome this too, but we cannot ignore that the transition would not be easy.
It is certain that food of animal origin, if it does not come from controlled animals is risky from a health standpoint. But, we must not forget, that many food borne diseases do not have their origin in livestock but in the handling that is made during its preparation. The artificial meat would not be free of a contamination risk as it would also be handled. On the other hand, as it has been explained, lab-grown meat would be produced in fermenting tanks that can be contaminated with bacteria, viruses or fungi that could be a source of infections for consumers. Do not forget that the finding of penicillin was due to some fungi that contaminated a bacterial culture that Dr. Fleming was studying.
Taking all the above into consideration, and with the data available so far, the technical and regulatory difficulties seem to be very hard to overcome. We have also seen that the environmental impact of this technology would not be positive, but quite the opposite. All this without considering the low acceptance that, according to numerous surveys, arouses this technology among consumers.
We will see what the future holds, maybe this technology will triumph and turn livestock into a museum relic, just as digital photography did with old films or maybe it will not. At the end of the day, many technologies have not been able to take roots, either due to cost, technical difficulties or because the public does not adapt, just like it happened with cloning or solar energy.
All of the above arises certain doubts about in vitro meat, both on its materialization and on its environmental advantages. Those who promote it call it ethical meat or clean meat, but the data questions this self-denomination.
Finally, some of the leading companies in livestock production have invested on in vitro meat start-ups. But, it is interesting that these same companies continue to heavily invest in expanding their traditional livestock business.
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- Burgers grown in a lab are heading to your plate. Will you bite?