By Kanishk Karan
Creating living things from petri dishes has always been the stuff of science fiction and even horror, but these days, lab-grown, or cultured, meat has become more of a reality than ever before. As far-fetched as it may sound, researchers at Memphis Meats - a San Francisco based food technology company - are producing beef, chicken, and duck meat directly from animal cells without slaughtering the animals.
Unlike slaughtering, which occurs in a quick, painful step, the process of creating lab-grown meat takes from four to six weeks and involves many steps. The first of these steps is to harvest stem cells from the animal itself.
Stem cells can develop into many different type of cells, and they are found in the muscles and organs of all living animals. For lab-grown meat, only stem cells from muscle tissue are harvested. To first obtain the tissue, scientists must separate muscle and fat cells from one another. The isolated muscle cells are then placed in a cell culture, where they multiply until their count grows to about one trillion. Following the cell culture, the muscle cells are merged together to form myotubes, which are small cylindrical muscle fibers. Finally, the myotubes are weaved around agarose, a gel-like polymer extracted from seaweed, which helps the muscle fibers grow into a patty shape.
The concept of cultured meat is realizable due to advancements in stem cell technology. This discovery supports the efforts of the movement against mistreatment of animals in the conventional meat industry.
“The world loves to eat meat, and it is core to many of our cultures and traditions. Meat demand is growing rapidly around the world. We want the world to keep eating what it loves.” explains Dr. Uma Valeti, co-founder and CEO of Memphis Meats, in a press release.
Memphis Meat is accumulating funding from some high profile sources, with two major supporters of the movement being Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group.
Repercussions of lab-grown meat
Some companies are using Fetal Bovine Serum (FBS), a cell-growth supplement made from the blood of cow fetuses to produce cultured meat. Besides the ethical ambiguity of raising animals for the purpose of obtaining FBS, the procedure for collecting the serum is ethically questionable itself.
Usually, the procedure is performed on pregnant cows. The pregnant cow is slaughtered while her fetus is removed from her body and brought into a blood collection room. There, the fetal blood is drained until the fetus dies. The overall draining period takes anywhere from five to ten minutes until the fetus is dead.
The cleaned and processed FBS extract is then used to help cultured cow cells develop into muscle fibers. FBS diminishes the chances of cell deaths as it contains growth factors, which are substances that can lie to cells and convince them they are right where they should be.
As mentioned on Slate.com, there are alternatives to FBS. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has listed 74 potential cell culture alternatives, but almost all are cell-type specific. Of the alternatives that can be used as universal growth mediums, platelet lysates are most commonly used.
Lab-grown meat is speculated to provide a huge relief to the planet’s current climate challenge.
According to a report published in 2012 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 26 percent of the Earth’s surface is utilized for livestock grazing. This portion of land occupied by livestock can be significantly cut down with the technology of cultured meat. Lab-grown meat does not require much space, as it can be produced in well-equipped labs.
Also, about 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to the livestock industry; shockingly this amounts to higher levels of emissions than those of the transportation industry. Concern over the livestock industry’s contribution of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere will only increase in coming years. The use of lab-grown meat can considerably cut short these greenhouse gas emissions by lowering dependence on livestock meat.
Besides its pros and cons, this technology has definitely surpassed previous limitations and could soon be delivering non-slaughtered meat to stores near you. The question still hovering around is: would you pay more to support the efforts of lab-grown meat or stick with regular meat to save a few bucks?
Sound off in comments, we would love to hear your thoughts.
Kanishk is a graduate student at the Columbia University School of Journalism. He is a tea connoisseur. You can hit him up on his site or Twitter.