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Seed: Walk us through how in vitro meat is made. What are the basic steps?
JM: It starts with cells—it could be a stem cell or something called a myoblast, a precursor to muscle. You proliferate these cells in a kind of nutritious soup that’s filled with vitamins and amino acids and salts and sugar. This is the biochemical equivalent of blood. In order for the cells to grow into tissues, they need this medium. And, it turns out, the most promising approach to producing this medium is to use microalgae, which are photosynthetic organisms even more efficient than plants. We recently funded some research at Oxford University to examine how meat cultured with this medium compares to conventional meat in terms of energy impact, and the study showed that it uses 90 percent less land and water, all while producing 80 percent fewer greenhouse emissions.
Once the cells are perfused in this medium, there are a few different ways to get them to fuse. You can place them on a thin, grooved surface, and the mechanical force against the cells causes them to form myotubes and myofibers, the building blocks of adult muscle. Or you can stimulate them electrically, or periodically stretch them. After a few weeks the tissues are mature, adult muscle, and they can be pulled out of the growth medium and processed as a ground-meat product.
Seed: Ground meat?
JM: That’s right. We don’t have the technology yet to produce thick slabs of tissue like steak. But right now about half the world’s meat is ground meat, and that share is growing due to more people eating processed foods. The big problem is, you have to vascularize the tissue—you’ve got to get blood vessels penetrating the 3D chunk, in order to continue to supply nutrients to the interior. Future biomedical technology for creating replacement organs and so forth may allow this to happen. For lack of a better word, in vitro meat is cannibalizing the advances in medical tissue engineering.
Seed: What are the greatest remaining obstacles to making in vitro meat commercially viable?
JM: Right now, in vitro meat is produced on a very small lab scale with lots of PhD labor, using a culture medium that is taken from scientific suppliers. The biggest hurdle is making the growth process as cheap as possible at an industrial scale. That involves automating all the steps so that you don’t have to have lots of skilled labor involved, and producing a culture medium cheaply at a very large scale. The Oxford economic feasibility study I mentioned earlier suggests that, at an industrial scale, the cultured meat cost should be quite competitive with conventional meat, but we’re not there yet. It’s five to 10 years away, not two or three.
Seed: Beyond technical limitations, what about social ones? What about criticisms that in vitro meat is “unnatural?”
JM: A good number of foods we eat are produced in ways that are highly unnatural. Cheese, yogurt, bread…these are all biotech products. We don’t think of them that way because we’ve had them a long time, but these aren’t things one finds in the forest. And when you think about how we currently produce meat, it couldn’t be more unnatural. It’s not natural to genetically breed chickens to have growth rates two to three times that of normal chickens, then put 10,000 of them in a metal shed, pump them full of growth-promoting drugs, and have them live in their own wastes. It’s not a particularly safe or efficient way of producing protein. On those terms, cultured meat looks pretty good.
I’m personally optimistic that consumers would actually savor a product that tasted the same as the meat that they already know, but is guilt-free. For instance, we can control precisely the fatty acids, the fat content of the meat. So, in principle, cultured meat could give you hamburgers that prevented heart attacks rather than causing them. That’s something consumers would like. They’d also like to have meats where they have to worry less about food-borne illnesses. Huge numbers of chicken carcasses are tainted with Salmonella or Campylobacter, and often those strains are resistant to antibiotics. There are real public health problems in how we currently produce meat. There’s still a lot of hard work to be done before this can be commercialized, though.
Seed: With all those benefits, why hasn’t there been more effort in agribusiness to support this?
JM: Well, the role of New Harvest is to do things that commercial funding can’t currently succeed in doing. The time horizon for this technology is on the edge of what commercial investors are willing to endure. I’m guessing we’ll see an expansion of public funding, and hopefully when it looks like the technology is five versus 10 years away, we’ll see commercial funding from those who can really bring it to industry and integrate this into production systems. Meat processors are actually really interested in this. If this is something consumers will accept, this is technology that would improve their business. They could make their supply chains much more efficient. You wouldn’t have the same bottlenecks and inefficiencies in growing livestock. It takes a couple of years to make a steer that you take to slaughter. In principle you could culture that amount of meat in a few weeks. That reduction in time from farm to fork would make just-in-time manufacturing possible for meat.
Seed: What will the meat taste like? You’re a vegetarian, but come on…
JM: Ahhh! Well, right now in vitro meat isn’t an approved product, so no one’s supposed to eat it. Certainly not me. Everyone asks… But we always have to be tight-lipped.
Front page image courtesy of MoMA’s Design and the Elastic Mind.
Originally published August 31, 2009
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