Imagine a backyard barbecue where the parents grill burgers and chicken kebabs they've grown from single cells using a home meat-making machine. Meanwhile, the kids are transfixed by grandparents’ tales of life in the 20th century, before google was a verb and when meat was brutally carved from animals that looked like their pets.
We’re not there, yet. But raising animals for consumption may soon become obsolete. Scientists have shown it’s possible to produce animal-free beef, chicken, turkey, and fish. The latest example is lab-grown fried chicken, revealed last month by San Francisco-based startup Memphis Meats. Tasters of the product described it simply as chicken, perhaps a little spongier.
“I was blown away,” says Emily Byrd, a spokesperson for the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting animal-free meat. “It’s almost strange to talk about it because the only way I can describe it is that it was chicken.”
Meat is essentially muscle tissue. If it grows naturally from a just few cells into a thick chunk, why can’t the same process happen in the lab? Over the past few years, scientists have made progress in figuring out how to use self-renewing cells to grow this tissue outside the body, and some hope to scale it up for mass production soon. You can call it lab-grown, clean, or cultured meat — we have yet to settle on a term — but there’s a good chance these products will replace conventional meat because of their potential to reduce environmental cost, increase health benefits for humans, and protect the welfare of the animals.
Population growth and changing trends in diet have led to a doubling of meat consumption by humans over the past half-century. By 2050, estimates suggest meat production will have to increase to 455 million tons each year, up from 259 tons today, in order to satisfy the additional demand generated by population and income growth, according to a 2012 report by the United Nations.
But producing that much meat using conventional methods might ruin the planet. Meat and dairy products account for 70 percent of global water consumption, 38 percent of land use, and 19 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the report. The alarming environmental impact of meat production has even led the U.N. to suggest people curb their meat consumption, with a proposed regimen including one meat-free day each week.
Someanalyses suggest that growing meat in factories could lessen the environmental footprint of livestock and reduce land and water use, as well as emissions. The lab-grown meat does, however, require creative designs to minimize the electricity and heat required to run the labs.
First, and most important, however, scientists and companies will need to figure out how to make enough lab-grown meat to bring its cost down to that of meat already on grocery shelves. Even the conventional meat industry is warming to the idea. In December, Tyson Foods, the largest U.S. meat company, launched a venture-capital fund to invest in start-ups that work on innovative approaches to protein products.
Winston Churchill predicted in a 1932 essay that within 50 years we’d be growing edible animal parts to “escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken.” He was just barely off. In 2002, a NASA-funded project successfully grew fillets from goldfish cells, but it wasn’t until a little later that lab-grown meat started to look viable.
It started with a hamburger grown entirely outside an animal’s body by Mark Post, professor of vascular physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
To grow the burger, he and his team used stem cells extracted from cow muscle tissue in a procedure similar to a biopsy. The cells were then put in a solution of bovine serum taken from unborn calves and then received food, hormones, and other elements naturally needed to grow. Over a few weeks, the cells multiplied and formed thin strips of muscle. It took about 20,000 of these strips to make one patty.
That project cost about $330,000. But the burger, the first of its kind, also required expert care of skilled technicians and expensive laboratory supplies. Post, who later formed the company Mosa Meat, has since announced that the price of his historic burger has fallen to $30 per pound.
Taste testers approved of his product and said it was “very meaty” — perhaps too meaty. It turns out much of red meat's taste actually comes from its fat content, which was nonexistent in the lab-grown burger. This complicates the job of meat creators; growing two types of tissues, each with different needs, outside their natural medium is difficult.
Growing meat in the lab is possible because of breakthroughs in stem cell research and tissue engineering — two fields that have attracted scientific interest because of their immense potential in medicine. Uses now range from growing human tissue for transplantation to creating organs-on-chips for testing new drugs.
“Stem cell science and tissue engineering are at a stage that you can try other applications,” says Shulamit Levenberg, a tissue engineer at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.
In her research, Levenberg created muscle grafts that can generate blood vessels to better survive when transplanted into the body. To do this requires a special expertise, one that also comes in handy for producing tasty lab-grown meat made of both muscle and fat, she says.
Such creative applications of tissue engineering are catching on. In 2015, the first cultured meat conference took place in the Netherlands and was attended by about 100 people, many of whom came from medical research fields only peripherally related to lab-grown meat production.
All this movement in new foods technology has triggered regulatory authorities to find ways of modernizing the rules set 25 years ago, when these new meat products were still science fiction.
In March, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington, D.C. released a report on the issue. “The rapid and often unforeseen advances” in biotechnology over the past decade spurred the committee to predict all future products of biotechnology that may arise over the next five to 10 years. Animal-free meat and dairy production was one field identified as having “high growth potential.”
Commercial interest in lab-grown meat may lead to other scientific breakthroughs as it introduces new challenges for biomedical researchers. To reduce the price, for example, scientists will have to discover new ways to grow cells more efficiently, says Liz Specht, a senior scientist at Good Food Institute.
Taking an open source approach may help the field move forward, says Erin Kim of New Harvest, a research institute dedicated to funding the development of cultured meat and other cellular agriculture products. She and her colleagues are opening the field to interested researchers by helping to create “starter cell” lines they can buy to experiment on, much like researchers currently do with mice. This has led to the creation of a turkey cell line, which was used last year to grow a small turkey nugget by North Carolina State University graduate student Marie Gibbons.
It’s possible that advances propelled by lab-grown meat could one day translate back into medical science.
“We are still limited in our understanding about how to grow larger pieces of tissue or functional organs,” Levenberg says. “If the two parallel approaches — the medical and the food industry — work on it together, there are more chances solutions will be found.”