Farming as we know it is evolving at lightning speed. In this article, Nicole Buckler boggles your brain with things to come.
Look closely at that herd of cattle on the hill, because it may not be around forever. In fact, we may never have to kill or farm an animal again. This is because some meaty change is coming. Soon meat may be produced in the laboratory, rather than on the rolling hills of Wicklow. A meeting of scientific minds has come together under a non-profit organisation called New Harvest, specifically to push along this idea. And the consensus seems to be that not only is this technically possible, it is going to be happening within the next few years.
Called ‘in-vitro meat’, growing lab burgers or “cultured meat” is currently underway, producing animal flesh that has never been part of a complete animal. And by cultured I don’t mean it is well travelled and well-read. Potentially, any animal could be used to make burgers, from goldfish to squirrels. Mmmm Mcsquirrel. And in fact many biologists say that the technology for this process is good to go, it just needs a commercial backer.
Meat, as we all know, is just animal muscle. So to develop this in a lab is fairly straight-forward in our imaginings. Scientists take a muscle cell from an animal (hopefully from a delicious one like a little piggy), and they join that cell with a protein which helps the muscle to grow into something resembling a steak or a burger. Mmm lab-licious. Once cells are harvested, a new animal would not be needed, because the original cells can divide to produce more cells, much like how bacteria for yoghurt is produced.
To industrialise the process, the cells would have to be grown on large sheets. And here’s the weird part: The ‘meat’ while growing, has to be exercised to get the muscle tone desired, otherwise they’d be like meaty mush. So the sheets that the meat grows on would have to be flexed several times a day, much like taking your dog for a walk.
So does the thought of a lab burger freak ye out a little? Is it a bit too high-tech for you? Well you may need to change your position on that in the future. It’s doesn’t have as much of the icky factor as you think.
Here are the advantages of cultured meat:
- Lab-produced meat would be much cheaper than normal meat
- Traditional meat has a very large cost to the environment. Cultured meat wouldn’t be so stressful to its surroundings. Nitrate contamination and methane gases are a stinky byproduct of current methods of industrial meat production, and these would be reduced greatly in lab burger production.
- With just one cell from one animal, in theory, you could supply the world with meat. Growing the meat without the animal could reduce the need to keep millions of animals in cramped conditions. And you wouldn’t have to kill loads of little souls for a sausage. In fact, animal activist group PETA has offered a million-dollar reward to the first company who successfully manages to produce meat in the lab. So we can assume that animal activists would mostly be on side.
- Laboratory-grown meat could also be healthier, proponents say. It would be less prone to disease and bacterial contamination, as long as the donor cells are not contaminated. It would also not require growth hormones and antibiotics that come with factory farming.
- It could be healthier. Fat content could be lowered, nutrients balanced, and the addition of omega-3 could make it the healthiest meat ever.
- There would be no bones left over, which reduces waste. Anything from 75 to 95% of what humans feed an animal is lost because of metabolism, and energy going to the parts of the animal’s body which are inedible, like the bones and the neurological tissue. Growing meat in labs would mean that only what was eaten would be produced.
- Production of lab meat would not require the subsidies that are given to many agribusiness industries in the west today.
- More meat variety could be produced. For example, the reason why we could never sit down to a platter of lion meat is because it is just too expensive to produce, even on an industrial scale. This is because lions are at the top of the food chain, meaning that they would need lots of little animals to keep them fed. However if we could grow lion flesh from some cultured cells then everyone could be having lion sausages for breakfast.
There are, of course, arguments against lab meat:
- Firstly, it is SO TOTALLY WEIRD. People are uncomfortable with the unfamiliar and unnatural. However, we are always looking for something new in our routine lives. If the meat doesn’t taste like a McBurger, then SO WHAT…the opportunity is open to create new products, not like anything humans have known before. Novel foods…yum.
- People who prefer their food whole and natural are not going to be au fait with lab meat right away. And others may have other reasons to turn away from it, aesthetically, culturally, or ethically.
- Consumers may worry that lab meat is of poor quality, and that there might be unknown health risks. If it is different in taste, texture and smell, people will be suspicious of it too. I wouldn’t want to be in the marketing department when it first hits the market!
Here’s the Rub
These days, with global populations spiraling out of control, we are gonna have to come up with something pretty good to avert some serious calamities. We already grow hydroponic veges, which is not natural. Factory farming isn’t natural either, nor is dousing whole fields with pesticides. So we have to keep in mind what is “natural” and what isn’t. And we have to keep the idea of cultured meat in context. China is doubling their meat consumption every decade, and India is becoming increasingly middle-class with expectations of having as much meat to eat as everyone else who is middle-class. It just isn’t possible to provide the world with burgers without using such technology.
We humanoids will just have to get used to the idea of lab meats, and perhaps we will even have a meat maker in our kitchen next to the bread makers. Don’t scoff into your herbal tea; it’s not that far off. Small amounts of meat have been grown in the lab, and scientists have even been able to convince heart cells to beat in Petri dishes. Minced meats and ground meat products are within technical reach, so you may soon be eating invitrosagne and labolognese very soon. Be ready. Lab meat will slowly move from scientific bizarrity to a consumer option. So keep your eye on the meat section at Tesco. Don’t wait for a 2-for-1 deal to be an early adopter. Tomorow, you may be eating rhino pie. Yummy.