YAY OR NAY? : Lab-Grown Meat

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Lab-grown meat has the potential to address economic, environmental and ethical concerns of rearing farm animals.

 

“Cows are very inefficient. They require 100g of vegetable protein to produce only 15g of edible animal protein,” says Dr Mark Post, a prominent food scientist who dared to serve a hamburger made from lab-grown meat at a conference more than 8 years ago. The scientific stunt cost him EUR 325,000, making this the world’s most expensive burger. His aim was simple – to show the world that edible meat, grown in a laboratory, was no longer a fantasy but an actual possibility. Eight years later, artificial meat is a much more affordable reality, with an array of benefits now, and even better prospects for the future.

Ever since the beginning of the millennium, greenhouse gases and their relationship with global warming have become burning topics of conversation for the knowledge society of the world. In such a charged environment, the understanding that cows produce methane which is bad for the ozone layer has put meat-eaters in something of an uncomfortable position. In the increasingly eco-aware world of today, the debate around eating meat has reached new heights. Consuming it hurts the environment. Not consuming it has the purist carnivores up in arms. Needless to say, lab-grown meat has come to the war zone as a truce, of sorts. Environmentally friendly, healthy and with the power to satisfy the urgent food demands of a growing world population, meat grown in a lab is being recognised as a solution to world hunger and is expected to revolutionise the way we see and perceive food in future.
Lab-grown meat is made by taking a biopsy from a live animal and separating stem cells from muscle cells. The separated stem cells are then cultured in a manner that provides them with the nutrients needed for rapid multiplication. The cells proliferate and make muscle and fat cells, ultimately forming meat.

A number of environmental concerns are associated with manufacturing conventionally cultivated meat such as the use of high amounts of energy, higher emissions of greenhouse gases, and increased use of land and water. Cows need to be fed a lot of food for them to be able to produce comparatively little animal protein. This requires the use of grazing land that is usually provided by clearing wild animal habitats, threatening biodiversity in the area. It has been found that 30% of the Earth’s usable surface is currently being used as pastures for animals while only 4% is being used for the production of vegetarian food. Moving to lab-produced meat is expected to cut down land and water usage by almost 90% and overall energy usage by 70%.

 

 

 

Additionally, cows make up almost double the biomass of the people on the planet, accounting for 5% of carbon dioxide emissions and 40% of methane emissions – a greenhouse gas the rapidly warming planet can do without. As lab-grown meat does not directly come from animals that need to be methodically fed and reared for slaughter, all these problems can be solved by switching to it.

By 2060, the world population has been predicted to exceed 9.5 billion and by 2050, the demand for meat around the world is expected to rise by 100%. Doubling the production of meat to fulfil this rising demand will make livestock responsible for half as much climate impact as all the vehicles of the world. These are staggering numbers and all the more reason for the world to adopt lab-grown meat as the new normal.

Grown in a highly controlled and sterile environment, cultured meat is free from microbes and contamination and is considered to be a generally safer option than conventionally farmed livestock. Because it is made in a laboratory, it steers clear of artificial growth hormones and unnecessary taste-enhancing antibiotics that cattle are commonly injected with. Lab cultivation also allays concerns that the meat would contain traces of intestinal pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Campylobacter, as the production of this meat does not entail slaughtering animals for such bacteria to pass through. Additionally, zoonotic diseases such as animal influenza which are known to occur when livestock and poultry are kept for long intervals in enclosed spaces are not major risk factors for cell-based meat as no livestock needs to be kept in such close proximity for the manufacturing of this protein.

 

Lab-grown meat is made by taking a biopsy from a live animal and separating stem cells from muscle cells. The separated stem cells are then cultured in a manner that provides them with the nutrients needed for rapid multiplication.

 

Cultured meat is also known as ‘designer meat’ because it has the potential to cater to the needs of each consumer individually. More than any other conceivable advantage of cultured meat, it is this characteristic that has the power to change the future of food as we know it. Meat can be made more nutritious through the addition of essential vitamins and beneficial fatty acids such as Omega-3, during its production. The content of healthy, polyunsaturated fats can be adjusted and unhealthy saturated fats replaced with nutrients in the meat during its creation.
Factory farming is notorious for its cruel treatment of animals which finally results in their slaughter. It is estimated that upwards of 70 million animals are killed annually to feed the meat-eating population of the world. PETA, Mercy for Animals and other animal rights associations, as well as animal lovers across the globe who may or may not belong to formal associations, could all be relieved at the thought of artificial meat. Extracting stem cells from animals is an easy procedure and just one sample can produce muscle tissue for almost 80,000 quarter-pound hamburgers. Living conditions for farm animals are also much better, thanks to this technology. Farmers can rear a smaller number of animals and have them roam around free-range, utilising the space in a healthier and more thoughtful manner for their animals. This can also ensure that no creatures are deprived of their mothers’ sustenance or traumatised or hurt during farming procedures as they would be if conventionally raised for slaughter. Therefore, the production of cultured meat is not only environmentally friendly but also, largely, cruelty-free.
This is not to say that the technology of producing meat in a petri dish is without problems. The manufacturing process is not complete without something called fetal bovine serum (FBS) which needs to be sourced from the blood of a dead calf. This crucial ingredient is not just expensive but also nullifies the important and widely marketed advantage of not having to kill for cultured meat. While a lot of researchers have begun using a plant-based medium to replace FBS, widespread acceptance of cultured meat will only be possible if it becomes completely independent of this manufacturing ingredient.

Moreover, food scientists are still facing some difficulty in producing actual muscle in the meat, complete with its organised blood vessels, connective tissues, and nerves. This means that cell-based meat is limited to only a single type and cut, as opposed to natural meat which comes in different textures and flavours. Simply put, lab-grown meat has not yet been able to pack the punch of the original, nor can it differentiate between the flavours and textures of the different animals that meat can be sourced from.

 

Meat can be made more nutritious through the addition of essential vitamins and beneficial fatty acids such as Omega-3, during its production. The content of healthy, polyunsaturated fats can be adjusted and unhealthy saturated fats replaced with nutrients in the meat during its creation.

 

To add to the list of concerns is the fact that artificial meat is a relatively new phenomenon and not much research has been done on it. The mass implication on the health of regular consumers of this meat is largely unknown and the technology is obviously too green for researchers to study the long-term effects of the protein in question. There is the added fear of some dysregulation taking place while cells are multiplying. If cells propagate exponentially in vitro, it can lead to a high probability of cancer in the meat, which may lead to all sorts of unknown complications for consumers.

Every time humans have chosen to tinker with nature, they have fallen prey to unexpected surprises. Therefore, as a responsibility to the people around the world, it is imperative that thorough research takes place before making lab-grown meat available to the masses. Assuming that lab-grown meat is commercially viable, there is a lot of historical evidence that prices will not remain so exorbitant but fall by and by. While it is normal for new technology to be expensive in its initial phases of research and development, higher volume always tends to push prices down. Singapore, for instance, the only country to have approved cell-based meat for commercial consumption sells its lab-made chicken dish for about $23, which is almost at par with cuts made from the flesh of animals. Of course, for cultured meat to do anything for humanity and world hunger, it needs antitrust laws that would prevent a few market bigwigs from snatching a monopoly of its production and selling it for a higher amount of money.
The jury is still out on whether lab-grown meat is the answer to alleviating big problems like global warming, and world hunger. It is a little unfair to have so much riding on something that still has a few years to go before it can prove its mettle. However, the prospects look enticing and if one is to believe the theories and projections on the subject, the future of food looks bright.

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