In 2013, a team of scientists from the University of Maastricht made history by producing the world’s first synthetic meat burger. It was grown entirely from stem cells over the course of three months. The 142g beef patty cost £215,000 to produce, and was cooked and eaten in London by a panel of three food critics with an overall positive result.
Since this initial taste test, the team, led by Professor Mark Post, have been refining and improving their technique for synthetic meat production, and there are now a whole host of companies, such as Memphis meat, Mosa meat, and Modern Meadow Inc. looking into ways to make more affordable, realistic synthetic meats. There is now an expectation that synthetic meat (also known as ‘cultured’, ‘in vitro’, or ‘lab-grown’ meat) will hit the supermarket shelves within the next five years, and that it will cause a revolutionary change to today’s meat market.
“They are also far more efficient to produce, and would have a significant impact on helping to reduce our carbon footprint”
There are many reasons that a switch to synthetic meats would be beneficial. The most obvious of these is the animal welfare argument. Recently, the immense pain and suffering caused to animals in the meat industry has featured heavily in the public eye, and as such, the number of practising vegans and vegetarians is increasing rapidly. The only animal involvement needed in producing synthetic meat is an initial, harmless biopsy to extract the cells needed to grow the meat. This would mean that animals no longer need to be bred and raised for slaughter.
However, ethical considerations are not the only factor making synthetic meats so attractive. They are also far more efficient to produce, and would have a significant impact on helping to reduce our carbon footprint. It is common knowledge that raising animals for meat is an inefficient, and ultimately unsustainable process, soaking up vast amounts of land, food, water, and energy.
The production of 1kg of beef by traditional methods uses over 15,000 litres of water, and requires 330 square metres of land! In contrast, a kilogram of synthetic beef can be produced using only 1% of the land and 5% of the water. Furthermore, the meat industry is currently a huge contributor to global warming, and 18% of man-made greenhouse gasses come from animal agriculture. A switch to synthetic meat would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the meat industry by 96%.
Another factor to consider is that synthetic meats are far cleaner and safer to produce than conventional meats. Nowadays, most animals raised for meat are kept in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) where they are packed closely together. As a result of this close proximity, bacterial infections spread very rapidly. Not only is this, of course, bad for the animals themselves, but it is also hazardous for the workers at the CAFOs, who often pick up bacterial infections, and for surrounding communities, whose drinking water can be contaminated with dangerous bacteria. Then when the meat is finally bought, it is also very dangerous for the consumer.
“labs contains fewer chemicals than traditional meat”
Bacterial contamination is worryingly common in store-bought meat, and can cause illnesses such as salmonella and e-coli. Alarmingly, more often than not, the bacterial infections come from faecal matter that have come into contact with the meat. In contrast, synthetic meats are produced in sterile environments, where there is no risk to workers or consumers, and the meat is guaranteed to be clean. Furthermore, although for many people the word ‘synthetic’ immediately brings to mind a deluge of chemicals, additives, and preservatives, the truth is that meat produced in labs contains fewer chemicals than traditional meat. This is because lab-grown meats are free of the pesticides, tranquillisers, and deworming medicines that are administered to animals raised for meat.
The production of cleaner, more efficient, more ethical meat seems to be a dream come true. PETA has stated that ‘[Lab-grown meat] will spell the end of lorries full of cows and chickens, abattoirs and factory farming. It will reduce carbon emissions, conserve water and make the food supply safer.’ But unfortunately, no solution is ever perfect, and there are still issues that need straightening out before Memphis and similar groups can roll out their products to the general public.
Many of the problems associated with synthetic meats are based on the details of how they are produced. Although the finer details vary from group to group, but the basic idea behind the production of synthetic meats is well-established.
Firstly, muscle tissue is taken from the animal in a harmless biopsy, and a specific type of stem cells known as myosatellite cells are extracted from the tissue. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that could ‘grow up’ to be any kind of animal cell, and myosatellite stem cells are those used specifically in muscle repair.
“One problem with this technique is, ironically, one of its initial selling points”
Once these cells have been extracted, they are placed into a growth medium to multiply. Over the course of a few weeks, one cell can grow and multiply to form over one trillion cells. These cells have the properties of muscle cells, and naturally band together into tiny tubes of muscle known as myotubes that are only 0.3mm in length. The myotubes are then collected together, and put into another dish around a gel hub, where they continue to put on mass, growing into a small piece of muscle tissue. Finally, the resulting strips of muscle are collected together and formed into the final food product.
One problem with this technique is, ironically, one of its initial selling points; nowhere in the process is any fat added to the meat. This was initially viewed as a hugely positive thing, because the burgers produced were significantly healthier than traditional beef burgers. In fact, not only did they contain no fat, but they could be made without heme-iron, growth hormones, and many other things that are found naturally in meat, and are unhealthy for humans. However, when in 2013 the first burger was presented to the panel of critics, one of the critics commented that ‘I miss the fat, there’s a leanness to it’.
That fact is that humans are biologically inclined to enjoy fatty foods, and a burger containing no fat cannot be considered a viable replacement for traditional meat. After this, Professor Post and his team began trying out methods of adding fat to their meat. For now, fat and muscle are being grown separately, and added together in the final product, but the final aim is for the two to be grown simultaneously in one dish. Still, this can be seen as an advantage, as the team will have control over how much fat they put into the burgers, and of what type; for example, they could replace saturated fatty acids with, for example, omega-3 fatty acids, which are far healthier for human consumption. They could also produce a range of products with different fat contents for the public to choose between.
“SYNTHETIC MEATS HAVE A HUGE POTENTIAL”
There are other problems that are far more specific. For example, the growth medium used to multiply the cells is traditionally a serum extracted from unborn calves; however, using this serum rather defeats the ‘animal welfare’ argument of synthetic meats, and so one of the challenges facing scientists right now is to find an alternative growth medium that can provide the cells with the nutrients that they need to grow.
Another problem is the complex structure of meat. It is reasonably easy to mimic the structure of a burger, but much more complicated when it comes to making, for example, a steak, which needs to have a specific ‘structure’. To do this, the meat would need to be grown with channels, somewhat like blood vessels, that can distribute water and nutrients around the meat; this would require some incredibly complex tissue engineering.
Yet another issue is that of marketing and distribution. The price of a synthetic burger is currently around £10. Although this is significantly cheaper than it was a few years ago, the price still needs to drop further for synthetic burgers to be a viable replacement. Furthermore, there are many economies that rely heavily on the traditional meat industry, causing concern over the state of the economy should synthetic meats gain popularity. And after this, there is still the issue of whether customers will be happy to eat a burger that was grown in a lab; for many people, this idea may simply feel too far-removed from what they are used to.
However, in spite of these problems, synthetic meats have a huge potential. As Post and his team work hard to modify and improve their procedure, synthetic meats are slowly but surely moving their way onto our plates.