Thursday, 22 November 2012

Synthetic meat, the humane food of the future

Test-tube meat, vat-grown meat, victimless meat and vitro meat. This form of meat has been described, sometimes derisively, as "laboratory-grown" meat. In vitro meat should not be confused with imitation meat, which is a vegetarian food product produced from vegetable protein, usually from soy or gluten. The terms "synthetic meat" and "artificial meat" may refer to either. The original NASA research on in vitro meat was intended for use on long space voyages. 
Experiments for NASA space missions have shown that small amounts of edible meat can be created in a lab. But the technology that could grow chicken nuggets without the chicken, on a large scale, may not be just a science fiction.
In a paper in the June 29 issue of Tissue Engineering, a team of scientists, including University of Maryland doctoral student Jason Matheny, propose two new techniques of tissue engineering that may one day lead to affordable production of in vitro lab grown meat for human consumption. It is the first peer-reviewed discussion of the prospects for industrial production of cultured meat. "There would be a lot of benefits from cultured meat," says Matheny, who studies agricultural economics and public health. "For one thing, you could control the nutrients. For example, most meats are high in the fatty acid Omega 6, which can cause high cholesterol and other health problems. With in vitro meat, you could replace that with Omega 3, which is a healthy fat. Cultured meat could also reduce the pollution that results from raising livestock, wouldn't need the drugs that are used on animals raised for meat.
The lab-grown meat created so far has been grown from stem cells taken from foetal calf serum. This is usually a by-product of slaughter, although stem cells could be harvested in smaller volumes without killing animals. Prof Julian Savulescu, the director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Ethics, says it doesn't matter how the product is made and "the fact that the meat is made from animal by-products is morally irrelevant".
To grow meat on a large scale, cells from several different kinds of tissue, including muscle and fat, would be needed to give the meat the texture to appeal to the human palate.
Professor Post's group at Maastricht University in the Netherlands has grown small pieces of muscle about 2cm long, 1cm wide and about a mm thick. They are off-white and resemble strips of calamari in appearance. These strips will be mixed with blood and artificially grown fat to produce a hamburger. The cost of producing the hamburger will be £200,000 but Professor Post says that once the principle has been demonstrated, production techniques will be improved and costs will come down. At a news conference, Prof Post said he was even planning to ask celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal to cook it.
At a major science meeting in Canada, Prof Mark Post said synthetic meat could reduce the environmental footprint of meat by up to 60%. "We would gain a tremendous amount in terms of resources," he said.
Meat demand is going to double in the next 40 years. Right now we are using 70% of all our agricultural capacity to grow meat through livestock.
More than 40 billion chickens, fish, pigs, and cows are killed every year for food in the United States alone.
In vitro meat would spare animals from this suffering. In addition, in vitro meat would dramatically reduce the devastating effects the meat industry has on the environment.
A study by researchers at Oxford and the University of Amsterdam found that in vitro meat was "potentially much more efficient and environmentally-friendly", generating only 4% greenhouse gas emissions, reducing the energy needs of meat generation by up to 45%, and requiring only 2% of the land that the global meat/livestock industry does.
On April 21, 2008, PETA announced a $1 million X-Prize style reward for the first group to successfully produce synthetic meat that is comparable to and commercially viable against naturally sourced meat products. While later in August 2012, the Thiel Foundation gave a $350,000 grant to Modern Meadow, a biotech startup. Their plans are to apply new techniques from tissue engineering and 3D printing to the problem of producing affordable in vitro meat.
The company claims that by carefully layering mixtures of cells of different types in a specific structure, in-vitro meat production becomes feasible. It’s set a short-term goal of printing a sliver of meat around two centimeters by one centimeter, and less than half a millimeter thick, which is edible. Modern Meadow explains in a submission to the United States Department of Agriculture: “The technology has several advantages in comparison to earlier attempts to engineer meat in vitro. The bio-ink particles can be reproducibly prepared with mixtures of cells of different type. Printing ensures consistent shape, while post-printing structure formation and maturation in the bioreactor facilitates conditioning.”

Although the science of synthetic meat is still in its infancy, the need to have a humane and environmentally friendly alternative to steak is at last being addressed. Despite the Grey area in which vegetarians would succumb to eating this type of meat, animal rights organizations are willing to throw money for the temptation. In keeping up with a growing population, perhaps research and development many be a wise decision. The other option is a unethical science fiction idea that mimics the film Soylent green.
Whereby fictionally In 2022, with 40 million people in New York City alone, and homeless people fill the streets and food is scarce;  most of the population survives on rations produced by the Soylent Corporation. The concluding idea is that rations are the extracted nutrients of dead humans. In any case future proofing our food supply at this stage is probably the best option then cannibalism somewhere down the road...

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