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Affordable lab-produced meat: The technology, plus other details

According to Passant Rabie in Science.Com early this year, “most of the beef consumed in the U.S. comes by way of an industrialized system that confines cows to small pens in vast feedlots, where they are fattened with hormone-laced grains before being shipped away for slaughter in what are essentially meat factories.” This is obviously in stark contrast to the way cows are reared in less developed world, for example in Nigeria, where cows waddle their way through grass in open field, consuming virtually everything in their path.

Arguably the quality of the meat from cows that graze on the field is far superior to that of the “industrialized” (or “agric.”) meat. The latter is usually too soft, overly juicy and tender, with soft, easily-cracked bones – not to talk of the chemicals in them that could harm humans. The former is the exact opposite. My wife prefers to cook with the lean (“organic”) meat from naturally fed cows, such as those described above for cows from Nigeria. However, agriculture reportedly contributes fourteen percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, destroys natural habitat, and pollutes water.

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A blog post on this topic early this year by one J. Nelson describes the problem very succinctly: “Another plus to this idea of “lab-created meat” is that it will hopefully limit the number of cattle that graze and generally exist. Cattle are an incredibly destructive species that pretty much trample and eat everything in its way. They are an invasive species on native lands, where they pass diseases off to local bison and take the local resources for themselves, leaving little to none for the bison. This would give us the space to ecologically conserve and restore large areas with native plants and give more room to those native species that have been limited by human laws on what grounds they are considered safe on.”

The science behind the production of cultured meat is fairly simple and apparently well understood, and doesn’t differ much from the technique used in other cell culture methods that have been used by scientists to study cells since the early twentieth century. According to Rabie, “The idea of growing cells outside of a living body has been around since the 19th century and used in everything from tissue preservation and vaccine production to chemical safety testing and much more. But it wasn’t until 2013 that the first lab-grown burger was unveiled to the world by Mark Post, a vascular physiology professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.”

All meat starts with cells. For the cells to grow, they have to be nurtured as they would in an animal. For this purpose they are fed things like extracted cell salts, sugars and amino acids. In response, the cells grow and multiply via hundreds of cell divisions. A single cell taken from an animal can grow into millions of cells in the lab if given the right nurture. According to Rabie, the cells created can be of different lineages  – muscle cells, fat cells or tissues – allowing producers to create different types of meat such as steak or chopped burger. She says, “Clean meat is made from stem cells extracted from real, live animals. There are all sorts of ways to extract them, including a conventional surgical biopsy. They can even be extracted from the feather of a bird, according to Isaac Emery, a senior environmental scientist at The Good Food Institute, a non-profit organization that helps companies develop clean meat products.”

Tom Ireland alludes to a technical challenge: “To grow cells industrially requires a large ‘bioreactor’ – a high-tech vat that can provide the perfect conditions for growth but also the movement and stimulation to exercise the cells. The largest existing bioreactor capable of doing this has a volume of 25,000 liters (about one-hundredth the size of an Olympic swimming pool), which has been estimated to produce enough meat to feed 10,000 people. It’s likely that many more of these would be needed to make a viable meat-processing plant.”

The cost of cultured meat is the big deal as of today, though significant progress has been made. Here are the reported statistics according to Rabie: “In 2013, the first clean burger cost $325,000. While the price has decreased dramatically since then, current estimates range from $363 to $2,400 per pound, making it much more expensive than regular meat. A pound of conventionally produced lean ground beef costs less than $6. Organically raised beef typically costs about a dollar more.”

As to the payoff, a reported 2011 study found that “clean meat produces 78 to 96 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions, uses 99 percent less land and between 82 and 92 percent less water.” She also states that “Research at the Good Food Institute has concluded that a cell culture the size of one chicken egg can produce a million times more meat than a chicken barn stacked with 20,000 chickens.” Energy costs are much lower and no animals are slaughtered. However, if you like bones and skin, cultured meat won’t be able to give you those. Hopefully other technologies will evolve.

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