When the Oxford English Dictionary released a list of contenders for its prestigious 2013 Word of the Year award, among the runners-up was the word “schmeat.” Defined as, “a form of meat produced synthetically from biological tissue” schmeat ultimately lost out to the far more ubiquitous “selfie.”
Despite its relative rarity in the common lexicon, schmeat’s inclusion on the OED shortlist highlights a recent major biological advancement in food production: the world’s first man-made “in vitro” hamburger, ceremoniously eaten and evaluated by a panel of scientists and food critics in London late last summer,
Yes, folks, synthetic meat production has established a foothold on the modern food map, if not yet on the world’s dinner plates.
Also called “cultured” or “test tube” meat, the biotech beef submitted for last summer’s taste-test was produced by scientists at Maastricht. They used stem cells harvested from a cow to grow thousands of muscle fiber strands packed tightly together in Petri dishes to form a burger-like patty.
Not to be confused with vegetable-based meat substitutes, synthetic meat is actual animal muscle tissue produced in a laboratory setting using in vitro tissue engineering methods. But unlike meat obtained from slaughtered animals, the only animal substance required to produce cultured meat are stem cells or myoblast cells extracted from living creatures.
To paraphrase the movie industry, “no animals were harmed in the making of this hamburger.”
Once confined to the realm of science fiction, edible lab-grown meat is no longer a distant dream of the future. While it’s still too costly and time-consuming for large-scale food production, the myriad benefits of cultured meat suggest its potential to one day stand alongside conventional meat products as a healthier, more sustainable, and animal-friendly alternative.
Among the many benefits of in vitro meat production are its ecological advantages over livestock production. The vast negative environmental impact of industrial animal agriculture has been widely documented. Livestock farming is a known contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and deforestation, and a huge consumer of water, energy, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Though its environmental burden is enormous, a report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that meat production will only increase in the coming decades; as the world’s population grows, meat consumption will rise dramatically both within developing countries and worldwide, thus increasing the already-enormous global demand for meat (ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/A0701E/A0701E00.pdf).
Growing meat in the lab, on the other hand, puts far less demand on water, land, and energy resources. Researchers have noted that, “the overall environmental impacts of cultured meat production are substantially lower than those of conventionally produced meat” (Tuomisto & Teixeira. Env Sci Tech; 2011: 45 (14): 6117–6123).
Cultured meat could also mitigate the public health concerns associated with large-scale animal agriculture, most notably around antibiotic drug resistance and food contamination. Producing meat in a lab setting would obviate the need for animal antibiotics, which are used extensively in factory farm settings. It could also allow for greater control over the presence of food borne pathogens commonly found in meat products, thereby reducing the likelihood of contamination and the spread of animal disease to human consumers (Datar & Betti. Inn Food Sci Em Tech; 2010: 11(1) 13–22).
In addition to its environmental advantages, tissue culturing may be used to create forms of meat that are healthier than comparable products derived from animals. It’s no secret that high consumption of animal fat is linked to an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, and some kinds of cancer. In the lab setting, scientists may be able to tweak the composition of in vitro meat, adding or removing specific types of fat to create foods with a more desirable nutritional profile.
Professor Mark Post, MD, PhD, lead scientist behind the biotech burger, stated in a report on the prospects of cultured meat that the new technology may, “facilitate the design and production of novel products.” He notes the possibility that the “biochemical composition of meat might be changed to make it a healthier or specialized diet product, for instance by increasing the content of polyunsaturated fatty acids” (Post M. Meat Sci. 2012; 92: 297-301).
Beyond its environmental and health benefits, perhaps the most compelling argument for lab-grown meat is its great potential to reduce needless animal suffering.
Those opposed to the unethical treatment of factory-farmed animals see cultured meat as a welcome solution to the immoralities of livestock agriculture. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other animal advocacy groups are embracing the concept, in the hope that lab cultured garne will sate the world’s massive appetite for meat, without requiring the continued slaughter of billions of animals each year.
In fact, PETA recently held a $1 million contest to incentivize the development of in vitro meat production techniques, affirming the organization’s strong pro-lab meat stance
While the consumption of an animal-free alternative is a no-brainer among some non-meat eaters, others have questioned the morality of cultured meat. Though its advantages are compelling, lab-grown meat is the epitome of artificial, manipulated, processed food, the thought of which leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth of its critics.
Skeptical vegans and vegetarians claim that the decision to eat – or not to eat – lab meat depends largely upon the sourcing of its ingredients and exactly how its grown. Currently, fetal bovine serum (FBS) is widely used in cell culture media, including that which produced the first biotech burger. A byproduct of the meat packing industry, FBS is harvested from bovine fetuses – a practice deemed not only unnecessary but also highly unethical by staunch animal welfare advocates (Gstraunthaler, et al. Cytotech. 2013; 65(5): 791–793).
Fortunately for the unconvinced, lab meat isn’t likely to hit grocery store shelves any time in the near future. But it is clear that we have entered a new era in food production, one that opens a host of new culinary and medical questions.
Kristen Schepker holds a Master’s degree in Integrative Health Studies from the California Institute of Integral Studies. She is a certified yoga instructor and holistic health and wellness coach practicing in San Francisco, CA.