What on earth is lab meat?
The truth is that the demand for meat globally is huge. There are vegetarians and vegans who are often motivated to boycott the consumption of meat because of the animal cruelty and the carbon footprint required to produce meat on this scale. There are people who are vegetarians purely because there is no meat available to them. And there are people who just have a visceral response to meat that keeps them well away. You’ve probably seen vegetarian ‘meat’ in your supermarket shelves, but we all know it isn’t really ‘meat’. But what if there was a way to produce actual meat without harming an animal? This seems fanciful, but scientists have been working on just that – and it may only be a decade or two before we can buy it. Would you eat it?
Scientists have been working on producing meat from stem-cells that reproduce to rebuild muscular tissue. Scientists take a small biopsy from the muscle of a cow (a virtually harmless procedure) to extract stem cells from the muscle. They are then placed in a nutrient rich, blood-infused broth which encourages them to proliferate. In 2013 Professor Mark Post revealed his first lab-grown meat to the world.
“Our bodies have stem cells just sitting there waiting to repair tissue,” Professor Post says. “If our muscle gets injured, these stem cells start to proliferate and form muscle tissue … instead of scar tissue. We are basically using that mechanism to create muscle tissue outside of the body.”
Professor Post and his team combine the proliferated muscle fibres, add salt, breadcrumbs and spices to create a burger. The initial prototype in 2013 was criticised for being a little bland, but Post’s team have been working hard to create fat tissue to give it that yummy taste. If it’s not tasty, then who would eat it?!
“We have transformed the culture system into something that can be scaled [up for industry], we have improved the protein quality, and perhaps most importantly, we have created fat tissue.”
The Dutch Professor isn’t the only scientist working on producing and perfecting lab meat. Memphis Meats from Silicon Valley are also on a quest to provide a no-death meat to the masses. The founder of Memphis Meats is Dr. Valeti, a Cardiologist who had been working on using stem cells to regrow heart tissue. Teamed up with some foodies and scientists they are trying to grow meat in a similar way.
“The products we’re producing are the delicious meat we’ve enjoyed for thousands of years — we’re just changing the process by which it’s produced,” he says. “Meat production has been essentially unchanged since we first domesticated farm animals 12,000 years ago. We think it’s long overdue for innovation.”
The thing that people are most excited about with the possibility of lab meat is the reduction in greenhouse emissions. The livestock industry is responsible for roughly 4.2 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Staggeringly, about 15% of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock. So the production of lab meat could potentially put a huge dent in that.
No Animal Cruelty
Another major win for the lab meat scientists and founders is that this method of meat production requires no animal to be harmed at all. For a lot of people this ethical motive is a huge win. The fact that we can enjoy meat and eliminate animal cruelty is exciting to those who have been protesting this for years. Not only does an animal not need to be killed for this meat, but it also means that animals aren’t given excessive antibiotics to fight the bugs contracted in the small confinement that they live in.
“70 per cent of the antibiotics used in the United States now are not used on people, they’re used on animals in agriculture, because we keep them in such inhumane, overcrowded conditions”. Ken Cook, founder of the US public health advocacy organisation Environmental Working Group
A Solution to World Hunger
One of the main ideas that has motivated Professor Post is that there is intense hunger experienced all around the world. There are some parts of the world where the land is ruined and there is no sustainable agricultural industry that there just isn’t food for people to eat. Proffesor Post was inspired by Mr Willem Van Eelen who was captured by the Japanese in World War II. Mr. Eelen experienced two things while a prisoner of war in Indonesia: terrible hunger and the mistreatment of animals. He was determined to find a way to feed the hungry without harming animals, and Professor Post has continued his project.
It might seem that it’s a no brainer to back this lab meat, but there is always the other side to the coin. There are some out there who can see some problems with lab meat. Greenpeace told the San Francisco Chronicle: ‘Synthetic meat distracts agricultural research and funding away from ecological farming, the real solution to the disastrous livestock model that causes environmental and socioeconomic crises and does not meet the dietary needs of the global South.’ There still needs to be work done to help the livestock industry to deal with the current environmental and animal cruelty problems. To ignore this problem would leave an industry to ruin. Professor Post hopes that livestock farmers will not be left in this situation, but will have time to switch to other types of production, including crops needed to feed the bioreactors used to make cultured meat. “Farmers are the ultimate entrepreneurs, they will do whatever they can do to attract value from their land,” he says.
Will You Eat It?
The ultimate test is if we will eat it! Of the surveys conducted, most people say they will give it a try. One internet survey of more than 600 Americans found that 65% said they would try it and only 8% said they definitely wouldn’t. The survey found that mainly men and meat eaters were the most open to trying it. Some vegetarians are keen while others are still unsure of the ethical merit behind it as an alternative. Will you eat it?
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