Meat is a vital, yet costly source of animal protein. Due to the escalating populations, urbanization, and increase in wealth all over the world, consumption of meat has been on a steady rise. In fact, it is predicted that in thirty years’ time, meat consumption will have doubled and conventional meat by itself will be inadequate. Lab-grown meat has come up as a potential alternative to conventional meat. Also known as cultured meat, in vitro meat, clean meat or synthetic meat, lab-grown meat is produced by in-vitro cultivation of animal cells under controlled conditions. The concept of animal cell cultivation has been in existence since the early 1970s. In 2013, the first cultured burger was created by Dr. Mark Post at Maastricht University (Goodwin & Shoulders, 2013). However, commercial production of lab-grown meat has not been possible due to limited dedicated research.
The Production Process
Production of lab-grown meat consists of three main stages: Selection of starter cells, treatment of the growth medium and scaffolding.
Selection of starter cells -The first stage in the production of lab-grown meat is to obtain cells that have a high reproduction rate. Such cells are obtained from live animals and include adult stem cells, myosatellite cells, myoblasts, or embryonic stem cells. Stem cells have the highest cell reproduction rate. However, they haven’t yet commenced development to a specific type of cell, which makes splitting cells and making them grow in a specific way difficult. Completely developed muscle cells are perfect, but they hardly reproduce (proliferate). Therefore, myoblast and myosattelite cells are commonly used as they reproduce at considerable rates.
Treatment of growth medium-The selected starter cells then undergo treatment by application of a growth medium, which enhances tissue growth. Growth mediums contain requisite proteins and a suitable amount of growth factors. The treated cells are then placed in a bioreactor, which supplies the cells with their energetic requirements. Bioreactors should ensure adequate perfusion of oxygen during cell seeding and cultivation on the scaffold. Various types of bioreactors include rotating wall vessel bioreactors and direct perfusion bioreactors. Oxygen carriers can be added to the growth media to maintain high oxygen concentrations.
Scaffolding-Cells are grown on scaffolds to culture 3-D meat. A scaffold is a component that directs the meat’s structure and order so that there is no need for frequent removal of the meat to stretch the developing muscles. This simulates an animal’s body during normal development. Microcarrier beads and collagen-based meshwork are generally used as scaffolds owing to their biocompatibility and biodegradability. Scaffolds must be flexible to avoid separation from the developing myotubes. Additionally, they must allow the creation of blood vessels for normal muscle tissue development. Scaffolding produces soft and boneless meat. However, its main drawback is the inability to produce highly structured meat.
Pros of lab-grown meat
Production of lab-grown meat is quick. A calf would take around ten months to mature whereas lab-grown meat could be produced in a matter of several weeks. Its production is also more sustainable as compared to that of conventional meat (Bhat et al., 2015). In the production of conventional meat, there is extensive emission of greenhouse gases and deforestation necessary for livestock rearing purposes, which can be avoided by the production of lab-grown meat that requires less water and reduces the emission of methane to the atmosphere. Furthermore, less space is required in the production of lab-grown meat. Unlike animal rearing farms that occupy huge acreages, setting up artificial meat factories would require much less space. Lab-grown meat also takes care of animal welfare. Though this may not be an issue of much concern, people who do not like seeing animals suffering in slaughterhouses will definitely support lab-grown meat (Bhat et al., 2015).
Lab-grown meat also has significant health benefits. The first benefit is that eliminating slaughterhouses could reduce the danger of food-borne infections as well as diseases transmitted between humans and live animals. In addition, it could be possible to supplement lab-grown meat with minerals and vitamins that do not exist in natural meat (Bhat et al., 2015).
Although lab-grown meat consists of genuine animal muscle cells, some consumers may have a general perception that lab-grown meat is unnatural (Verbeke et al., 2015). This perception is similar to the perception of GM (genetically modified foods) and would discourage people from taking it (Bhat et al., 2015). The taste of lab-grown meat would also be unappealing to some consumers since it contains no bones or fat.
Production of lab-grown meat would also result in job losses. Because production of natural meat creates plenty of jobs, it only means that these jobs would be lost and the people would lose their sources of livelihood. Besides job loss, massive artificial meat production could accelerate obesity and other health issues as a result of overconsumption. Finally, production of lab-grown meat is currently expensive, owing to the enormous amounts that have been spent in the research and development stages before major progress in the fields (Bhat et al., 2015). However, it is estimated that improvement in current technology would significantly reduce the production cost.
Technological advancements and commercialization
The first cultured burger made in 2013 faced resistance by consumers due to its texture, color, appearance, and taste, which were different from that of conventional meat. However, technological advancements in recent years have enabled likeness to conventional meat (Galusky, 2014). For example, saffron and red beet juice can be used to improve the meat’s color. The taste can also be improved via the addition of proteins and fatty acids. The appearance can be improved by seeding the cells in a collagen-based scaffold that gives it a complex 3-D structure.
Some of the startups that have made technological advancements in the field include Mosa Meat, which has significantly lowered production costs. Memphis Meats has also produced cultured beef meatballs alongside the first cultured poultry products such as duck l’orange and chicken tenders. Meatable is a Dutch startup that has successfully grown meat using pluripotent stems from umbilical cords of various animals (Galusky, 2014). Despite the difficulty in culturing meat from these cells, Meatable has claimed success. This technique has the advantage of bypassing the fetal bovine serum, meaning that no animal has to be killed to produce meat.
In spite of the technical advancements, lab-grown meat remains largely unexploited. There is a need for further technological enhancements to boost production and processing in terms of packaging, storage, stability, and quality. Furthermore, governments need to come up with regulatory measures which will above all check on the purpose and quality before successful commercialization of lab-grown meat.
Overall, lab-grown meat remains a potential alternative to conventional meat. However, acceptability by the community may be difficult. Public acceptance can be changed by conveyance of proper message through appropriate channels such as media coverage and discussions in scientific debates. Moreover, a lot of research and technological advancements are necessary to commercialize lab-grown meat – the current production costs are just too high.
Bhat, Z. F., Kumar, S., & Fayaz, H. (2015). In vitro meat production: Challenges and benefits over conventional meat production. Journal of Integrative Agriculture, 14(2), 241-248.
Galusky, W. (2014). Technology as responsibility: Failure, food animals, and lab-grown meat. Journal of agricultural and environmental ethics, 27(6), 931-948.
Goodwin, J. N., & Shoulders, C. W. (2013). The future of meat: A qualitative analysis of cultured meat media coverage. Meat Science, 95(3), 445-450.
Verbeke, W., Sans, P., & Van Loo, E. J. (2015). Challenges and prospects for consumer acceptance of cultured meat. Journal of Integrative Agriculture, 14(2), 285-294.