“Fifty years hence, 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”, said Winston Churchill in the 1930s.
Although it’s been much more than fifty years, the idea of cultivating meat has recently become a viable possibility.
Scientists have been seriously exploring the idea of laboratory grown meat, also known as vitro or in vitro meat, in 1995 when NASA began the experiment in an effort to improve the varieties of food available to astronauts to take into space for long periods of time.
The first major breakthrough came in the year 2000, when the NSR/Touro Applied Bio Science Research Consortium grew goldfish cells to produce fish fillets.
In 2008, PETA announced that it would give a one million dollar reward to any company that began to sell in vitro chicken meat to consumers by the year 2012.
However, it was not until the end of 2011 that Mark Post, professor and vascular biologist at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, and his team managed to grow strips of muscle tissue from animal stem cells (Stem cells are basically unspecialized cells that are capable of developing into specialized cells, tissues, and organs.)
Why, you must be wondering, is this important? Livestock has been our source of meat for thousands of years, so why do we need these hi-tech methods?
Well, food scientists believe that the current methods of food production, especially for meat, are unsustainable. In order to meet the demands of earth’s ever burgeoning population, food production over the next fifty years must more than double. Along with this, climate change, rapid urbanization, rise in standards of living, and water shortages will make the production process even more difficult.
Growing meat in labs will alleviate these problems in quite a few ways.
Firstly, water will be saved, since livestock animals require food crops which need water for cultivation.
Secondly, the requirement for farmland will lessen, and this would only benefit as the availability of arable land has already reached critical points around the world.
Thirdly, this new technique will be more efficient than the older one. Animals like pigs and cows require an average of 100 grams of vegetable protein to produce 15 grams of animal protein, resulting in an energy efficiency of 15 percent, as compared to in vitro meat, which Professor Post says will have an energy efficiency of 50 percent.
Fourthly, the production of in vitro meat will inevitably lead to fewer animal deaths, which is sure to be a winning point for animal lovers and vegetarians.
Moreover, Post says that through this technique, one animal will be able to produce one million times the meat it could have produced through the traditional method.
And lastly, the amount of greenhouse gases released by traditional methods could be reduced by this new method by as much as 96 percent.
Mark Post is positive that by this fall, he and his team will have produced an in vitro hamburger by mixing artificial muscle tissue with blood and artificially grown animal fat.
The synthetic meat produced in this method will actually be very similar to real meat because Post manually exercises it! According to The New Scientist, “Post makes sure his tissue strips receive daily exercise to give them the same constitution as real muscle. He anchors them onto Velcro before stretching the cells away from the surface”.
The real challenge that scientists now face is how to improve the cost and efficiency of the production process. The current value of this hamburger project is $330,000 (USD).
Post assures people that once the process has been demonstrated, production processes will be reinvented for the purpose of mass production and the cost will undoubtedly come down.
Post also admits that the burger will probably taste bland in the beginning, and so scientists will have to work on flavoring. Also, while the concept of in vitro meat has largely been met with positive responses from scientists and consumers alike, there are a few who do oppose the idea. For example, David Steele, a molecular biologist from Canada, believes that people should eat less meat to solve the environmental problem instead, and also fears that dangerously high levels of antibiotics and other chemicals will be needed to prevent the synthetic meat from rotting.
This fall, a famous chef (whose identity is yet to be released) will prepare the first in vitro hamburger in front of the world. The identity of the anonymous American who is funding this project will also be revealed.
This is indeed a historic step, mainly because so many problems can be mitigated by this method. Feeding more people? Check. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Check. Saving animals? Check. Saving land and water? Check. The list goes on.
The world waits to see what this fall brings, and in turn what it means for us and our futures. Perhaps one day I’ll be sitting in a restaurant ordering my steak medium rare and synthetic. And then perhaps another day, I won’t have to choose—it’ll be synthetic meat or nothing; zero, zilch, nada.