The Delicious Future: Cultured Meat

what will 2050 look like?

Roads brimming with flying cars and solar-powered bicycles. Streets lined with vending machines filled with the most exotic foods you can imagine, and aircraft cruises flying high in the sky. Whatever the future holds, it’s nonetheless exciting and vastly unknown.

What we can speculate, however, is that as suggested by the United Nations, the world is expected to house 9.6 billion people by 2050.

That’s a lot of mouths to feed, a lot of land used, and tons of water needed to sustain a monstrous population. On top of that, we have global warming and pollution in the form of industrial wastes and greenhouse gases to worry about.

A cARNIVORE’S nIGHTMARE?

The World Health Organization predicts that by 2030, the world will be consuming 45.3 kg of livestock per capita on an annual scale, with individuals from industrialized countries consuming the most livestock (100.1 kg/per capita/year).

On a related note, despite the fact that the US Department of Agriculture projected meat consumption in USA declined by 12.2% compared to its 2007 levels, their latest reports claim 2016 red meat and poultry production will be higher than 2015 rates. Meanwhile, Canada is supposedly undergoing rising meat prices, with beef experiencing “18 to 22 per cent increases, depending on the cuts” than the previous years. Similarly, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reported that between 2004 and 2013, beef, poultry, and hog meats have increased in monetary value.

With increasing prices of meat, does this spell trouble for global meat eaters? With meat becoming increasingly pricey, how will we ever feed our expanding population?

Introducing: in vitro meat!

It will no longer be necessary to go to the extravagant length of rearing a bullock in order to eat its steak. From one ‘parent’ steak of choice tenderness it will be possible to grow as large and as juicy a steak as can be desired. –Frederick Edwin Smith, 1930

Cultured meat, shmeat, cruelty-free meat, tube steak, test-tube meat.

Although the name may not sound entirely appetizing, in vitro meat (IVM) has attracted a lot of attention from the scientific community and the general public over the past few years, as it may serve as the revolutionary tool to ail the expanding ‘global meat crisis’.

IVM is synthesized from animal cells (usually muscle and/or adipose cells), that are extracted from the animal of interest. The cells proliferate (or grow) in a medium, which is a solution that contains nutrients, energy sources, and growth factors. In order for the cell mass and/or the resulting muscle fibers look like shapes carnivores are used to seeing, the cells must be ‘wrapped’ around a scaffold structure, such as a mesh network and/or micro carrier beads.

Using the above mentioned method, it is entirely possible to form IVM in the form of a patty and/or beef mince. However, more research is involved to synthesize more intricate structures like steaks. Additionally, a variety of cells other than muscle and/or adipose varieties may need to be used as well.

Scientific ingenuity?

It’s more than just a cool science experiment; it harnesses some pretty cool potential.

Because IVM technically does not involve killing a live animal, it may appeal to consumers that follow religious dietary laws.

Unlike conventional meat, IVM may reduce the risk of transmitting food-borne related illnesses such as salmonella or E.coli.

IVM can even be produced from the cells of endangered/extinct animals, producing ‘exotic’ meats that may appeal to the epicurean foodie!

But beyond the health implications and mystery meats, advocates for IVM like to point out an obvious benefit: the minimal impact it has on the environment compared to its conventional meat counterpart.

A 2011 paper published by Hanna L. Tuomisto and Joost Teixeira de Mattos summarizes their research to estimate the environmental impacts of large-scale cultured meat production in comparison to conventional meat production in USA, Europe, and Asia.

Using a methodology known as the Life Cycle Assessment, Tuomisto and de Mattos estimated the water usage, greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, and land usage of IVM and conventional meat.

They estimated that for 1000 kg of IVM produced in the three production sites requires 745% less energy, between 82-96% less water, 99% less land, and 745% less energy than 1000 kg of conventional meat that is produced in Europe.

Although Tuomisto & de Mattos admit that  this study was based on several assumptions (and thus the true, quantitative impact of IVM is still unknown), they mention that any ‘excess’ resources saved from IVM production can be integrated into efforts relating to bioenergies, reforestation, and wildlife conservation, strengthening the argument of encouraging IVM.

…or just plain madness? Meaty Hurdles straight ahead
Image courtesy of Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig.

Image courtesy of Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig.

Although the concept of IVM is generally positive in the public eye, there are still naysayers that are not readily on board with the innovation.

Some argue that IVM doesn’t necessarily provide a solid solution to environmental degradation (that conventional meat production has caused) and masks other, more important challenges related to the global environment and future food security.

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. —Greenpeace on the San Francisco Chronicle.

Christina Agapakis, a PostDoctorial Fellow at UCLA, argues that IVM may not be an environmentally sustainable practice, since large-scale production would require large bioreactors, which may require copious amounts of fossil fuels. Also, IVM production in a lab is most feasible with fetal bovine serum (FBS), a media that is derived from unborn fetal calfs; thus, it debunks the idea of IVM being a ‘cruelty-free meat’.  Unless we replace FBS with an algal medium (which is quite difficult to do at the moment), critics may argue that IVM is not as revolutionary as previously thought.

Can IVM be marketed to vegans and/or vegetarians?

While some non-meat eaters are willing to try it, other consumers are not in a rush to consume the lab-grown meat. Although it is not representative of the entire non-meat eating population, a survey conducted by The Vegan Option reported that out of their 34 vegan respondents, 70.59% claimed they wouldn’t try IVM; a whopping difference to the 14.71% that said they would!

Is IVM a solution to our problems, or should we scrap it and find another way to feed our monstrous population?

Either way, it’s probably going to take a while before we ask our fast food restaurants for a side order of fries with our IV beef burger.


Renee C. has received her B.Sc. in Honours Life Sciences at McMaster University. She loves educating others about different topics in science, and has developed a passion for scientific outreach. When she’s not writing articles for Hemtecks, she’s either volunteering or checking her social media accounts every 20 minutes. Along with Tiffany (Tianhemtecks), she also facilitates the blog’s Facebook page. 

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