Is Test Tube Meat the Way of the Sustainable Food Future?
What if instead of going to the butcher you went to your local “cultured meat facility”?
The idea of test tube meat is nothing new, and yet it still makes most people squeamish. A new article in “Trends in Biotechnology,” however, hopes to speak less to our stomachs and more to our brains, exploring the idea that cultured meat is in fact the sustainable food of the future.
In the article titled “Cultured Meat: Every Village its Own Factory?” Dutch professors Cor van der Weele and Johannes Tramper explore the possibilities of meat made from lab-cultured stem cells. According to them, humans aren’t big on the idea of test tube meat, writing that “most people initially find the idea of cultured meat surprising; first (Dutch) responses vary from ‘wow’ (from the majority; mostly because of the prospects for animals) to ‘yuck’ (from a minority; prominent associations are genetic modification and hot dogs).”
Yet despite this aversion to cultured meat, it might be our only option if we want to continue as meat eaters. “Rising global demand for meat will result in increased environmental pollution, energy consumption, and animal suffering. Cultured meat, produced in an animal-cell cultivation process, is a technically feasible alternative lacking these disadvantages, provided that an animal-component-free growth medium can be developed,” van der Weele and Tramper write in the abstract.
The professors hold that our resistance to meat grown in this way may be solved by more small-scale production, writing that “worries about its unnaturalness might be met through small-scale production methods that allow close contact with cell-donor animals and thereby reverse feelings of alienation.” In fact, the professors envision a day when “every village” has such a processing facility.
If that were the case, we’d need fewer and fewer cows to produce meat to eat. According to CulturedBeef.net, an initiative of Maastricht University, “Cells taken from one cow could produce 175 million burgers. Modern farming would need 440,000 cows.” Fewer cows means reduced emissions and environmental impact. As for the ethical question, donor animals are still needed for the cells, but those cells can be provided by biopsy, and taking the sample doesn’t mean taking the cow’s life.
How exactly would the meat be produced? In tanks, not test tubes. “Muscle stem cells from pigs, cows, chicken, fish or any other animal are allowed to grow and reproduce in 5,200-gallon processing tanks,” writes the Los Angeles Times. Van der Weele and Tramper hold that this method of production would be capable of producing about 28 tons of meat a year, and feed more than 2,500 people. The idea is that many villages would be able to install such production facilities, ensuring that they could feed their individual populations.
If this is all so doable, why isn’t it happening already? Money. “From an economic point of view, however, competition with ‘normal’ meat is a big challenge; production cost emerges as the real problem. For cultured meat to become competitive, the price of conventional meat must increase greatly,” write the professors.
But as global demand for meat increases, so does the price of conventional meat, as seen right now in the United States, where the price of meat is peaking early in the season.
Is test tube meat the way of the sustainable food future? As Van der Weele and Tramper have shown, it’s certainly an area that demands more research, the possibilities potentially beyond what most of us can imagine.
What do you think? Would you eat test tube meat?
Photo Credit: Hey Paul