It looks more like squid than steak and because it lacks the fat and protein found in real cattle, does not taste like traditional beef. So why would anyone eat meat grown in a lab?
Artificial meat may sound weird, but it could help feed millions with minimal environmental impact. Credit: iStockphoto
Cultured or in-vitro meat may still be years away from our supermarkets, but scientists in The Netherlands say they will be able to grow a hamburger by the end of this year.
Professor Mark Post, who is refining the meat-making process at Maastricht University, says once perfected, the technology could slash the environmental footprint of growing food. He predicts in-vitro meat could reduce the requirement for livestock by a factor of one million.
Livestock for human consumption takes up 70 per cent of the world’s arable land. They use eight per cent of global freshwater and produce 18 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions – some 3,000 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year (that’s more than the entire world’s transport sector). Deforestation to create farmland accounts for a third of those emissions.
If the amount of meat we consume continues to increase at its current rate, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicts that it will double by 2050 and farmers will struggle to meet demand.
Professor Alan Bell, Chief of Livestock Industries at Australia’s national science agency, the CSIRO, says radical changes are needed to both agriculture industries and global eating habits.
“We have to become more efficient and make better use of waste resources or resources that are presently wasted,” he said.
“And as developing countries become more prosperous, those of us in the developed world will have to pay a lot more for our livestock products and maybe consume less.”
Research carried out by agro-ecologist Hanna Tuomisto at Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit in the UK suggests in-vitro meat may be able to meet demand while reducing environmental impact.
Comparing the life cycle of a piece of lab-grown meat with that of a cow, she concluded that it required up to 45 per cent less energy to produce and resulted in as little as 4 cent of the greenhouse gas emissions.
“In terms of environmental impact it would still be better being vegetarian but cultured meat would be much better than any kind of current meat production,” says Tuomisto.
“For example, the water requirement for [producing] cultured meat is just five per cent compared to conventionally produced beef.
“So, if we can produce meat in a lab which tastes good and is healthy, that would be a win-win situation – people won’t need to change their diets and it would be better for the environment.”
Growing beef in a machine would also reduce the need to convert land for farming and provide some protection for rare and endangered species that are currently overhunted for food. And, containing the process in a factory would enable better waste water management compared to run-offs from farmers’ fields.
There is also the potential for building burgers that are packed full of health-boosting vitamins and micronutrients such as iron, zinc, and calcium, but devoid of cholesterol-inducing fatty acids.
The concept of cultured meat is a hot topic among members of the UK-based Vegetarian Society for whom it may pose a cruelty free way of enjoying the taste of bacon.
“We voted against the motion ‘In vitro meat – is it the future of food?’ at the charity’s supporters conference in 2010, but not before hearing some strongly held views in favour,” said Su Taylor, a spokesperson for the organisation.
“Many campaigners argue that any development which results in fewer animals being reared and slaughtered for food is a good thing.”
Animal rights groups PETA and Voiceless share a similar view.
Sociologist Neil Stephenson, who has interviewed many of those developing cultured meat, says that even bioethicists exploring the issues around test tube burgers have struggled to find any robust objection.
“In terms of investing the money and pursuing the research, no one really gets hurt – it’s just scientists in their laboratories seeing if they can make it,” he said. “There are no clear reasons to stand against it.”
However, that doesn’t mean that people will want to eat it.
“The ethicists recognise the ‘yuck factor’ – the idea that when people hear about it they are disgusted by it,” adds Stephenson.
Similarly, Professor Post from Maastricht University hasn’t yet encountered any opposition to his work with in vitro meat but accepts that winning over consumers will be a challenge to overcome if his product is ever to be a success commercially.
And while research paints a green picture for the test tube burger, the industrial processes needed to mass-produce are yet undefined.
“Right now, a small number of people trying to make in-vitro meat won’t have significant environmental issues,” says Stephenson.
“In future if it’s going to be made in massive factories, with several plants in every country, there’s obviously going to be a lot more energy inputs that go into running them.”
Bioreactors might also come with a different set of problems to those associated with traditional livestock farming, says Stephenson.
“There might be planning issues, because potentially these could be very big things that look unattractive,” he explains.
“There are local environmental issues such as the impact upon traffic or the aesthetics of the area. In the overall story these are quite small things but they are imaginable.”
Another possibility is that like many scientific breakthroughs before it, the technology behind growing meat in a lab may find its primary use elsewhere.
“People in the [United] States are already considering using it to produce fish food -small quantities would change the texture and digestibility of other food stuffs,” said Stephenson.
“It never would have occurred to me that it could end up as an input to an industrial fish farm.
“That’s why it’s so hard to say now what the costs and benefits of this might be – in vitro meat technology might radically change some aspect of current practice that hasn’t yet occurred to us.”
Author: Sharon Kean
Source: ABC – Australian Broadcasting Corporation