Why In-Vitro Meat Is Good for You

Power Player / by Lee Billings /

Jason Matheny on the world’s addiction to meat and how to grow ground beef in a test tube.

Page 1 of 2

These days seemingly everyone recognizes that our globalized society is hooked on plentiful and cheap fossil fuels, and that this dependence poses great challenges for future prosperity. But there is another addiction that goes largely accepted and often unnoticed, a hunger that may be growing even faster than that for oil. The developed world is addicted to meat, and rising nations, like China and India, are beginning to embrace that lifestyle.

Arguments against eating meat are often made on grounds of cruelty and personal health, though, ultimately, the most compelling argument may be ecological: Meat requires extreme amounts of resources to produce, and consequently carries a vast environmental footprint.

But what if there was a way to have your meat and eat it too? What if meat could be made free of animal cruelty, with minimal adverse consequences for the health of individuals and the planet? Researchers around the world are now focused on finding ways to grow meat artificially, using bioreactors rather than livestock. New Harvest, a non-profit company created in 2004, is channeling much of the funding for this work. Seed’s Lee Billings spoke with New Harvest’s co-founder and director, Jason Matheny, on the state of meat substitutes and the environmental perils of the status quo.

Seed: What is New Harvest?
Jason Matheny: New Harvest is a nonprofit that supports the development of new meat alternatives, including cultured or in vitro meat, which is meat grown independently of a living animal. When it was founded in 2004, there was no organization scanning the horizon for new technologies that could potentially replace conventional meat, and no organization serving as an information clearinghouse for research that could advance these new meat substitutes. New Harvest’s goal is to push forward technology that could satisfy the growing global demand for meat in a way that’s healthier, more energy-efficient, and sustainable.

Seed: What drew you to this work?
JM: My background is in public health. Before New Harvest, I’d been working in India on a Gates Foundation project, and while I was there, I was surprised to see the prevalence of American-style factory farming. I was amazed that, in this country with a long history of vegetarianism, there was a doubling of meat consumption every decade. The same, it turns out, is true for most of the developing world. China and India both are expected to double their meat consumption again over the next decade, and then again over the next. Worldwide, the expectation is that total meat consumption will double by 2040.

Think of what this means, given the problems with meat consumption right now. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has estimated that nearly one-fifth of the human population’s carbon footprint is due just to meat consumption. That’s more than all the trucks, cars, and planes put together. Meat consumption is also connected with public health problems: Swine flu and avian flu both originate and spread through factory farms, and cardiovascular diseases associated with animal fats cause millions of deaths per year. If we’re going to make a dent in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and improve public health, we really have to find a better alternative.

Seed: Right. So why not just eat less meat?
JM: I’m a long-time vegetarian myself, so I’m all in favor of behavioral change. But behavioral change is hard to accomplish at a population level very quickly. There’s a strong innate human appetite for meat, probably because it was biologically important in our ancestral environment. Protein was harder to get, we didn’t have industrialized agriculture to provide us with plant proteins very efficiently, and fats and micronutrients were also scarce in our diet. Eating meat made a lot of sense in the late Pleistocene. Now things are different. We have the same kind of conflict with our evolutionary programming when it comes to things like sugar and fat. These things taste really good to us because they were rare and valuable when we were evolving. Our challenge is in developing a technology that can satisfy those cravings with fewer negative consequences.

Seed: What about plant-based meat substitutes?
JM: Plant-based meat substitutes have gotten a lot better over the last 20 years, and there are great products out there getting closer to what meat-eaters expect in a product. But they aren’t there yet; the products still aren’t fooling most people. It’s unclear how much more they can improve—there’s only so much you can do with plant proteins to texturize them and give them the “right” taste profile. And lots of people are allergic to soybeans, or concerned about phytoestrogens. Just as we’re exploring lots of different renewable energy sources, we need to have a diversity of possible alternatives to meat, because chances are that one technology won’t work for everybody. There will probably always be some part of the market that, for whatever reason, wants to eat animal muscle rather than texturized plant proteins. Supporting parallel technologies is key.

Page 1 of 2

Tags energy food innovation public perception technology

Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More

Now on SEEDMAGAZINE.COM

  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.

Portfolio

Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

SEEDMAGAZINE.COM by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2012 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM