Science

The Future of Food: it’s not what it used to be

2 March 2015

Food shortages and severe environmental concerns are often framed as some of the biggest global challenges of our time. They are less often framed as opportunities for culinary adventures in the laboratory. But as it turns out, new developments in food production (hello, steak grown in a petri dish!) have the potential to alleviate many environmental and social justice issues in the most delicious of ways.

It is too bad, really, that as we make efforts to drive less, use less electricity and recycle, a more significant source of carbon emissions is often overlooked – our meat consumption. When I was a kid, Sesame Street used to tell me to switch off the light when I leave a room. Great idea. Too bad that eating a 300g steak is roughly the CO2 equivalent of leaving a 60watt bulb on 8 hours a day, for 5 weeks.

The United Nations has released reports urging people to move towards vegetarian or vegan diets in order to curb global warming. They have argued that a meaningful reduction in environmental impacts from food production would only be possible by a global shift in diet.

However, while many do make the switch to vegetarianism, the world is actually increasing its per capita consumption of meat; by 2030, the average human will consume an estimated 100 pounds of meat per year, 10% more than today. There are various reasons behind this: access to meat increases as people in developing countries rise above the poverty level, while meat costs drop as industrialised animal factories produce mass quantities at low prices. And despite the worldwide campaigning by environmental and animal rights organisations, or the growing research into the health benefits of reducing meat intake, the vast majority of the population is still unlikely to be convinced to become vegetarian. Here is, perhaps, where new meat manufacturing processes may take the stage…

Now, meat grown in a petri dish has been dubbed as ‘frankenmeat’ by some, it is true. But perhaps the idea is more appetising upon closer inspection? The process is not as strange as some may think, and has come a long way since the first edible meat grown in-vitro was produced (goldfish cells made to replicate a fish fillet). The process uses harvested myosatellite cells, which are a type of stem cell used by the body when repairing injured muscle tissue. The cells can be taken from an animal without harm and can be used to replicate muscle growth and repair outside the body – forming strips of actual muscle tissue. Dozens of research facilities around the world are researching and testing lab-grown meat. This technology essentially makes it possible to eat any meat, (without negative consequences to the animal itself) and has the potential to alleviate food shortage issues, as well as mitigate the high carbon footprint associated with the meat industry.

 

Kebab

 

The exciting part here is that this would allow us to eat animals whose consumption has posed ethical problems – such as whales – without actually harming them. It could allow the repopulation of animals that are at risk of extinction, while still allowing their meat to be consumed – without a single animal killed in the process. We could even use this technology to grow meat of animals that have long since died off. The muscle tissue of woolly mammoths found frozen in glaciers could be commercialised and enjoyed. Scientists have been successfully creating stem cells from skin cells, so only a minuscule sample of skin would be required to produce the meat.

At the first public tasting in August 2013, strips of in-vitro grown beef were cooked into a burger and served to two food critics who stated that if it had been a blind trial, they would have believed it was beef. And while that first burger cost a whopping $325,000 to produce, that figure has now dropped to around $11. That stills ends up at around $80 per kilo; however, like most new technologies, this price is expected to significantly decrease as it becomes more widespread and developed.

Nutrient value also remains a concern. As protein is normally formed through exercise, the in-vitro meat has less of it. However protein can also be introduced through electricity and other stimulation, methods that are currently being investigated. Omega-3 fatty acids could also be added to improve nutritional value – in the same way that livestock today are fed different foods for that very reason.

While those two food critics were clearly won over by the taste, it is true that the flavour and texture is not entirely the same because the muscle tissue grown has little fat. However, growing whole limbs, rather than smaller amounts of tissue in a petri dish, would help solve this issue… Lucky that growing entire limbs is exactly what Harald Ott at Massachusetts General Hospital has successfully done with rat and monkey limbs earlier this year, even creating arms grown from human cells. While Ott’s ultimate goal is growing replacement parts for amputees, the same process could potentially be used to grow (delicious) meat for consumption.

The technique Ott uses is called “decell-recell”, and involves stripping all the cells from a donor limb (which can be taken from a dead animal) to create a scaffold for the new limb. This scaffold is then reinforced with collagen and used to grow the new limb. Nutrients are provided to the limb so that it can grow fat and muscle like normal. This creates the possibility of harvesting the meat by periodically shaving it from the detached limbs while they grow. So maybe the next generation of drunken teenagers will be getting the freshest lamb kebabs ever as they stumble home from the nightclub – shaved straight off the living leg. Delicious.

As these new technologies and processes are still very much in development, they are unable to be accurately assessed for health concerns. However, so far it is hypothesised that producing meat this way would reduce the need for growth hormones and reduce exposure to bacteria, disease, pesticides and other dangerous chemicals. But the biggest barrier towards the human consumption of lab-grown meat may be psychological, especially if companies begin to produce meat from animals we are culturally unaccustomed to eating. How many people could eat dog meat, even if they were assured that the cells were harvested from a dead animal who had lived a long life and passed away naturally? These perceptions are significantly shaped by culture and religion, and differ greatly around the world. But perhaps these barriers won’t exist for future generations who grow up seeing these processes as no more than standard meat production.

Change is perhaps the one certainty we have when it comes to what the future will look like. The recent developments in meat production have the potential to completely alter our perceptions of food and to change the entire industry. The advent of ‘frankenmeat’ may well change the way we produce and eat meat, and the way we interact with animals. These new production methods may make some squeamish right now, but perhaps in a few decades we will ponder how people could have been so comfortable knowing that each time they ate meat, an animal actually had to die. Or we may be bemused by the fact that a third of the world’s grain production was grown simply to feed animals that were then killed for meat.

Of course, some may argue that there are still ethical concerns surrounding any form of meat consumption. Or argue that growing meat from extinct animals simply to eat them is wrong. On the other hand, a strong argument can be made that these new methods of meat production could very well be one of this century’s greatest wins for animal welfare and environmentalism.

It is still estimated to be a few decades before this produce is commercially viable. Rather than fearing the future of food, we should use that time to reflect on our perceptions of meat consumption, and to explore both the concerns around these emerging technologies, and the potential they hold. It still might be a while till I eat kebab meat shaved off a living limb though.