Pork steaks

Meat scientists look to in vitro production

In vitro meat promises to be more ethical but could be stymied by technical problems and cost.

In Spring 2008, pressure group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) decided meat could be good. It was an unusual step for people whose favourite tactic is to throw buckets of paint at fur-wearing fashionistas. There was just one catch: meat could be good as long as it doesn't involve killing any animals.

PETA put up a bounty of $1m for the first team of researchers to find a way to synthesise commercially viable quantities of chicken meat in the laboratory, and therefore avoid having to slaughter any chickens to get there.

Ingrid Newkirk, PETA president, said at the launch of the contest: 'People are surprised to learn that PETA is interested in lab-grown meat, but we have overcome our own revulsion at flesh-eating to champion a breakthrough that will mean a far kinder world for animals.'

In reality, that $1m prize would be chicken feed if researchers get that far. They would have the means to revolutionise a hundred-billion dollar business that is growing surprisingly quickly. And that's just for the chickens. Factor in pork and beef and you have a market worth close to $1tr, and it's growing fast.

Andrew West, CEO of New Zealand-based AgResearch claimed at the Oxford Farming Conference, using statistics from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), that consumption of pig and poultry protein is rising four to eight times faster than human population growth, far outpacing that of red meat, which is more or less matching the increase in population.

In the developed world, some 40 per cent of cereals and grain are fed to livestock, although this is largely down to custom and practice. In Africa, only 14 per cent of cereals are fed to animals, according to a 2003 study by Andrew Speedy of the FAO. However, Speedy pointed out that livestock production is not a direct threat to food security because 'the commercial livestock sector is extremely responsive to the price of cereals'. He argued that the use of cereals as feed can act as a buffer for cereal farmers, preventing farmers from being lumbered with waste grain in good-harvest years. However, as meat production and population both rise, fears are growing that it will exacerbate food shortages among poorer nations.

From Omega 6 to 3

There are other reasons for looking seriously at artificial meat. Jason Matheny, who set up the New Horizons group after researching artificial meat production in the middle of the last decade, claims cultured meat could be more healthy: 'Most meats are high in the fatty acid Omega 6. With in vitro meat, you could replace that with Omega 3, which is a healthy fat."

Another potential advantage is that cultured meat won't fart or belch (see box on p32) and production could involve less pollution, according to Matheny. Meat cells grown in vitro will be fed on a chemical mixture that is more directly nutritious and generate, in principle, fewer waste products.

Another factor in favour of in vitro meat is the potential reduction of waste. Speculating on the future in 1932, Winston Churchill could see massive potential in this kind of technology: 'We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.'

Meat grown in a vat does not need to walk or breed so no energy or material is used to generate bones and inedible organs. However, this assumes that the feed for in vitro meat is as easy and cheap to produce as grass or corn.

There is the risk that the methods used to produce the nutrient broth will result in the production of a different set of equally inconvenient pollutants that need to be converted or sequestered. Although methane and glucose could provide much of the bulk material and energy, the feed will also need to include bioprotein and something to mimic blood serum, which are more complex to process and manufacture.

There is another problem: cost. A preliminary economic analysis carried out by Exmoor Pharma on behalf of Professor Stig Omholt of the Agricultural University of Norway one of the leading in vitro meat researchers found that the cost per tonne of meat produced synthetically would probably be around 3,000. Exmoor warns that the assumptions made for plant and feed costs may prove inaccurate. But the exercise demonstrates how sensitive the in vitro meat industry is likely to be to market forces. The cost of chicken or pork produced conventionally today is around 1,500. Based on current estimates, beef production may be more viable as that costs around 3,500 to produce today. However, much of the early work on in vitro meat has been on pork. Without a massive improvement in technology, factory production is not likely to replace farming quickly.

Convincing chops

Making meat that tastes and feels like the real thing is also problematic. Research has indicated that taste is heavily influenced by what the animal eats, which implies that the conditions needed to produce tasty in vitro meat will be subtle.

Working on Arctic lambs at the Agricultural University of Norway, Danish researcher Vibeke Lind found that the meat's taste was strongly affected by feeding them on silage and home pastures, which had a lower variety in the diet, versus mountain grazing. Not only that, the fatty acid content increased.

Before they can concentrate on taste, simply getting the meat to grow such that it feels right is the big problem. Researchers are focusing on producing meat suitable for processed foods, such as sausages and burgers, because it looks to be more tractable. It should be simpler to achieve the right texture with that than attempt to grow complete steak complete with artificial veins, fat streaks and connective tissue in a convincing shape.

However, most researchers see in vitro meat as a long-term objective: it will take many years before you see synmeat or whatever it is called on the supermarket shelves. PETA thought 2013 is achievable but even 2020 is ambitious by most estimates. But, as scientists come to understand more about what makes organs form, they will gradually come to understand how to emulate those processes. And, if they do it more cheaply, factory farming will take on an entirely different meaning.

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