We all know that lab burgers are in the works, and they will be on our plates in our lifetime. But how about a lab chicken breast? Are you ready to take a bite for the team?
By Nicole Buckler
Professor Amit Gefen from Tel Aviv University is one of the world’s leading experts in Tissue Engineering. His professional history demonstrates him to be wildly dynamic in his thinking. But now he is using his boffin skills to create something unusual and revolutionary – a chicken breast grown in a lab. No chickens would be hurt in the process. And that’s the tastiest chicken of all.
Professor Gefen is part of the Modern Agriculture Foundation – a non-profit organisation founded in early 2014 in Israel. They launched the chicken-focused world-wide pioneering project last year. And they will try their damnedest to produce a chicken breast in the lab within 10 years if they can.
Many people have got a beady eye on this team and have their fingers crossed. It holds a lot of promise for the wellbeing of the world we will be living in 20 years from now.
The project aims to make lab-grown chicken breasts commercially viable as soon as humanly possible. So why would humans want to do this? There are a lot of very compelling reasons. In Ireland we have an excellent farming industry. We have green hills, plenty of space for the animals to roam, and educated farmers who produce safe, traceable food in humane conditions. But this isn’t the case everywhere.
In other countries, huge, polluting factory farms aim for cheap meat above all else, and most of this ends up in fast food where quality or animal care has no bearing on production. Animals are suffering, the meat is of poor quality. The factories churn out pollution like there’s no tomorrow. And these operations will only get bigger, unless we do something and fast.
A 2011 study by Oxford University and the University of Amsterdam, for example, found that cultured meat would produce 96 percent less greenhouse gases and consume 82 to 96 percent less water than commercially raised livestock. Cultured meat has the potential to reduce and, in some cases, eliminate that impact, by revolutionising the way we produce meat for human consumption.
As the world population increases, more people will demand meat, especially those who can’t afford it now but will be able to buy it in the future. The danger is that these people will start eating like Westerners. And we already eat too much meat with no signs of slowing down.
Says Professor Gefen, “Humanity needs to consider more sustainable models of food production. We need to provide alternatives to the traditional ways by which we currently produce proteins. Tissue engineering may offer such alternatives. We are targeting the development of a tissue-engineered chicken breast, which is a popular choice for a main course in many cultures and countries. We also aim to test feasibility of the concept and, in particular, to identify gaps in knowledge and challenges on the route to commercial production.”
Cultured meat will be a winner in many ways. It does not require that the animals be raised in crowded, industrial sheds or slaughtering them in a bloodfest worthy of the Game of Thrones. Lab meats will have a significantly reduced ecological footprint in terms of land and water use, waste, and all the other seriously gross things associated with factory farming. Cultured meat will be produced in sterile, controlled environments using cells taken from animal bodies, in a process which results in 100% real meat.
Professor Gefen takes the position that we have no choice but to make lab meats anyway. “Resources for the animals will become so expensive that the end product—native meat—will be too expensive for most of the population to consume regularly. It is our duty as researchers to prepare for such a future.”
Professor Gefen and his colleagues chose to focus on chicken, because it is a popular flesh. In Israel, it is pretty much everyone’s lunch. And Israel isn’t alone here. It is estimated by several different sources that around 49 billion chickens are consumed worldwide every year. So while it is the hottest meat on the planet, this doesn’t mean it will be easy to grow it in a lab. Gefen says that it will be a challenge to re-create the texture and consistency of a native chicken breast. But like John F. Kennedy said, we should try to do something not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
So would you eat the lab chicken? Perhaps people would initially balk at it. The trick would be to get people to eat the lab chicken without associating it with all of the heebee jeebies that come with manufactured food. But compared to factory-farmed food, it is less likely to be crawling with pathogens like Listeria, E. coli, and Campylobacter, which are famous moochers in the factory farming process. And really, if someone is scarfing down fast food every other day, then they don’t care about where their food comes from. They really only care about not being hungry. These people aren’t going to care that their chicken breast was manufactured by some boffins who talk substrates over lunch. It could be an easy sell.
And for those worried about GMOs… the GMO thing here isn’t actually a thing. Gefen says that his team isn’t altering DNA or genetics. In fact, they don’t change the genetic coding; they just create a situation like a chicken’s body upon which they ask muscle fibres to grow. These muscles fibres have been harvested from a normal chicken who has led a normal life and hasn’t been Frankensteined in any way.
What is the alternative to lab meats? Dump half the world population on Mars? Get everyone to agree to move to a vegetarian lifestyle? People don’t want to do this, and won’t do it, unless they simply cannot afford meat. Presently, 70 percent of agricultural land is used for animal agriculture, so it just shows how we feel about vegetables and grains in comparison to meat.
The general feeling is that these chicken breasts are about ten years away. But I, for one, am hoping they hit out plates sooner. I’m a fan. Yes scientists are playing God in the lab. But our own God, if he exists, seems to have left us in it. We are destroying ourselves and we need our scientists to dig us out of the bed we have made for ourselves. It’s not a time for God. It’s a time for science.
One day, as we eat our delicious crispy lab breast, we will look back and think, “Remember how farmers used to have to keep all those chickens? Like ON THEIR PROPERTY? Things are great in 2025. And this chicken is mighty fine.”
We live in hope. ■