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Fighting Global Warming With Lab-Grown Meat

meat.jpg(Author's note: I debated whether to post this today; it's not exactly keeping in tone with the earlier pieces. I decided, however, that at a time when reality is almost too much to bear, a bit of surreality is useful.)

"Faux" meat biologically identical to real tissue but grown in the lab is something of a staple in science fiction. In January, researchers at the University of Manchester, UK, came up with a method of using ink-jet printer technology to build animal tissue structures, including differentiated skin, bones and organs. I referred to them as "meat-jet" printers, and argued that they could be the harbinger of the future emergence a new kind of cuisine: cruelty-free, waste-free, prion-free meats grown in the lab. Little did I know how rapidly this scenario might come about.

In the June 29 issue of Tissue Engineering, researchers describe methods of mass-producing "cultured" meats: muscle tissues with the same taste, nutrients and texture of "real" meat, grown under controlled conditions in the lab. This wouldn't be fake meat made from processed vegetables, it would be cellularly identical to the flesh from livestock -- but no animal would be killed for its production. (The article itself is under a subscription barrier The article is now available online, and a detailed summary is available here.)

The researchers -- from the US and the Netherlands -- aren't just talking about theory. They've started a non-profit company called New Harvest to develop cultured meat.

The production of such "cultured meat" begins by taking a number of cells from a farm animal and proliferating them in a nutrient—rich medium. Cells are capable of multiplying so many times in culture that, in theory, a single cell could be used to produce enough meat to feed the global population for a year. After the cells are multiplied, they are attached to a sponge-like "scaffold" and soaked with nutrients. They may also be mechanically stretched to increase their size and protein content. The resulting cells can then be harvested, seasoned, cooked, and consumed as a boneless, processed meat, such as sausage, hamburger, or chicken nuggets.

Setting aside the vaguely-discomfiting visuals of growing hamburger in vats, cultured meat actually has some distinct advantages.

"There would be a lot of benefits from cultured meat," [project leader University of Maryland doctoral student Jason] Matheny said in a statement. "For one thing, you could control the nutrients."

Meat is high in omega-6 fatty acid, which is desirable, but not in large amounts. Healthful omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in walnuts and fish oils, could be substituted.

"Cultured meat could also reduce the pollution that results from raising livestock, and you wouldn't need the drugs that are used on animals raised for meat," Matheny said.

Raising livestock requires million of gallons of water and hundreds of acres of land. Meat grown from tissue would bypass those requirements.

But perhaps most important would be the significant reduction in greenhouse gases that would result from moving away from livestock-based food production. In this month's Physics World, Dr. Alan Calverd argues that over 20% of human-caused CO2 comes from livestock farming. (This figure doesn't include the methane production from livestock, which also contributes to greenhouse gas buildup.) He suggests a global move to vegetarianism as a way to combat global warming. For those who can't give up their burgers and chicken, cultured meat would be a nearly-as-climate-concious alternative.

New Harvest is still studying cultured meat's nutritional and production issues. It may take a few years before they have something they can bring to market (or at least make available for testing), but in terms of the technology, there's every reason to think that tasty, indistinguishable-from-"real" cultured meat will be possible to make. The question is, will people buy it?

I think so. Many (most?) of us already experience meat only in the cleaned, sliced and packaged format, where it looks nothing like the animal from which it came. Cultured meats would (presumably) be no different in appearance than other processed meats, and would have distinct health and safety advantages. And, eventually, even a cost advantage: the factories to grow cultured meats would take up far less space and far fewer resources than livestock ranches, and traditional ranching is likely to come under increasing economic pressure due to the effects of climate disruption.

Cultured meat is one of those developments that seems almost too bizarre to be real, but could have significant worldchanging implications. Will we embrace its advantages? With New Harvest on the job, we may soon find out.


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Comments (29)

Stefan Jones:

WHOOOOO! Whack off a slice of Chicken Little for me!

Coming soon: recylable ceramic FauxBones (tm) that would be used, along with vat meat, to simulate T-bone steaks, chicken wings, and chicken drum-sticks.

Margaret Atwood's recent book, Oryx and Crake, paints a scary picture of a future that grows meat in the labs.

She calls one such product, ChickieNobs. Nobs are engineered to grow like fruit on a plant. Great book and perhaps a portent of our dietary future.

Echoing Stefan, bring on the cabinent beast!

I've been reading about this idea for over a year now and it's good to hear their still making progress.

I think it's a good thing--if people insist on having meat.

If it can reduce the need for ranch land and factory chickens, if it can produce high-quality protein for far less energy than growing a whole cow, sow or hen, then I say it's a good thing.

Of course there is still the issue of whether beef, pork or chicken is really good for you in the long run compared to other environmentally mild sources of protein and vitamins.


Phood oh glorious phood!

Um - what's the "nutrient"? How is it produced? How much do you need to make how much "meat"? Any other inputs? Culture and processing energy requirements? Or did someone finally invent the "free lunch"? If so, it's quite the achievement.

jim moore:

I like "meat jet printer" but I think Franken-fabricator is a better term.

I don't agree with the sentiment that it's somehow false meat.

It's real meat with real cells in a real connective substrate. This is the same thing as tissue engineering organs. They're just growing the part we like to eat without growing the whole chicken or cow.

It's growing and regenerating a muscle from a dead animal. Kind of grotesque but hardly more so than an abattoir.

And since we're only growing that part of the chicken, a lot of nutrients aren't wasted on growing other parts of the chicken we don't need. Energy isn't wasted on maintaining the health of a whole creature.

Seems like it could make agriculture a lot more efficient in the long run. Just like Stefan said, it's just like Pohl's Chicken Little. Or the lambchop trees in Rucker's Master of Space and Time.

But I do wonder if it might lead to a new bout of heart disease, malnutrition and weight problems as people freely wallow in guilt-free veal and whatnot.

Stefan Jones:

'Um - what's the "nutrient"?'

A colloidal suspension of ground-up Third World babies, dolphin brains, spotted owl gonads, and black-footed ferret tongues.

Why do you ask?

". . . as people freely wallow in guilt-free veal and whatnot."

I doubt it. Folks who don't eat veal or froi gras or what-not now probably won't eat this stuff. I doubt more than a third of vegetarians will even consider eating the stuff.

David, the link to research in the post shows that they're considering a mushroom-based broth as the main nutrient.

I agree that, ecologically, a global shift to vegetarianism would be a Good Thing (tm). However, there are millennia of culture to contend with -- culinary traditions in much of the world heavily reliant upon the availability of meat, and social norms in almost every country that say that meat should be part of daily meals.

Could meat-eating habits be changed, globally? Probably, over a sufficiently long time. Unfortunately, the environmental problems arising from (traditional) meat production aren't going to give us that sufficiently long time. Cultured meat -- or meat-jet printers, or Franken-fabbers -- could, at leats, give us some breathing room.

N. Tsrungh:

If cultured animal cells, why not cells from humans? Presumably human meat, of all animal proteins, would be ideally matched to our dietary requirements. I recall reading that "long pig" was considered a rare delicacy by New Guinea cannibals. (But I'd take this with a grain of salt. And pepper.)

Can they fab a milkshake and fries with that?


This is interesting, not to mention sorta Arthur C. Clarke'ish. (No suprise there really, read his short story; The Food of The Gods. He predicted this nicely. As usual.)

It's not false meat, it's just meat grown in a none-entity state that is carefully controlled. Like it has been previously asked in the comments, there are some questions about what is needed to grow meat and it's nutritional value. But even it needs more resources than animals I think that the technology will still have it's breakthrough in a market of people who want to eat meat without other lifeforms having to suffer. (I know I would prefer to eat know that the meat never knew suffering.)

And to all of you worried about the dietry consequences; Education is the key. Teach your children to eat properly, teach them that everything should be consumed in moderation, teach them to exercise properly. Teach them the consequences of not being moderate dietry. (Without create a negative view on obesity of course.).

A lot of obesity is caused by the lack of schooling from an early age. If you are taught to eat until you are stuffed from day one then that will affect you the rest of your life... So we can avoid obesity problems if we just educate and create the right culture around eating.



"With a single cell, you could theoretically produce the world's annual meat supply."

My days of vegeterianism are numbered! ...already looking forward to me Meat Feast when this comes out on the market.


I am actually finding the idea quite disgusting. I'm not about to give up being a vegetarian just because meat can be made cruelty free. I'm sure the same goes for the majority of vegetarians and vegans.


This project provokes two questions in me. One: would pouring money into doing this hasten the day when we can also produce replacement organs for ourselves? (Heart valves should be relatively easy to print, for instance.)

And, Two: if we can do this with animals, why not plants? Is anybody trying to vat-grow only, for instance, oranges without the orange tree? Or wheat kernels without the wheat plant? It would seem to be easier to do this with plants than with animals. So why haven't I heard about anyone doing it?

I have a third question, not for the squeamish and more of a vision really--of a future society where people eat pirated celebrity meat--since, hey, after all, it's not *really* cannibalism, is it? Seriously--who would you want a taste of?


"A colloidal suspension of ground-up Third World babies, dolphin brains, spotted owl gonads, and black-footed ferret tongues.

Why do you ask?


DRoll very very droll :)

I have littel faith in these folks aproximating anything eidble- I mean jsut look at what agribusiness has done to the tomato.

There are children who have never tasted a homegrown tomato. That's a crime.

We can approximate it - but the thing itself is seomthing entirely different than it's approximation.

Homegrown tomatos
Homegrown tomatos
What'll life be without homegrown tomatos
There's only two things that money can't buy
That's true love
and homegrown tomatos!


I agree with the concept but not the application.

Saying that this will solve the world's meat shortage is a little like saying pesticides will do the same.

Rich countries will continue to hold this technology over the poor ones, eliminating them from the game as they do now with trade, agriculture and financial markets.

This could be a boon for the medical industry though- imagine living longer because you can go into "the body shop" to get a new heart, lung, or any other failing organ. Will that extend the age of those who are welathy and can afford it? Will there be those who live hundreds of years because of integration of new part? Like a old restored model Ford, will we ride again, well past our prime?

Very interesting concept, and food for thought.


Could we make meat powered cars? Hows that for stopping CO2 production...

Stefan Jones:

Hey . . . would a slab of cloned bear gall bladder or tiger testicle be an acceptable substitute for the real thing when it comes to Chinese medicine?


An extremely important aspect of this technology (and its effect) is that livestock animals are very effective transmitters of disease. Historically, people and livestock living in proximity has been responsible for a great many epidemic outbreaks, as diseases jump from animals to people. (I seem to recall something in the news recently about this...)

(On the other hand, Jared Diamond - in Guns, Germs & Steel - argues that because of this, the immune systems of early farmer/herders were more robust than people who had no domesticated animals, like Native Americans - something I suspect modern medicine makes obsolete.)

This danger is only compounded by factory farming practices, which increase the resiliency and mutation rate of viruses; there's a direct link between birds stacked in cages and Asian bird flu. Pigs are especially problematic, as their immune systems are physiologically similar to ours, making it relatively easy for their diseases to jump to humans.

The solution to the problems of the factory farm is commonly held to be smaller organic livestock farms, but while these carry less risk, they actually *increase* proximity. And they still require land for feed and free-ranging. Perhaps it is time to supplement them with LabSlab(tm)lab-grown meats. It would radically decrease our risk of a pandemic - pretty worldchanging.


This idea strikes me as an extraordinarily good way to create a cheaper tasteful solution to consistantly having to buy organic meat. No, i'm not a vegetarian, I believe that meat is a necesary part of my diet. However, I believe that the vast majority of the meat industry is corrupt, cruel, and extraordinarily unhygenic. Consequently I have to spend lots of money buying organic, free range, and locally raised meats so that I can be sure the animals weren't mistreated or fed and inoculated questionably. My point is, this kind of thing will be fought tooth and nail by the meat industry, and it needs to be supported so it can be pushed through. A clean, safe, humane, and most of all efficient way of creating healthy cheap meat is important.

Ben Hunt:

I believe the article has been set free, due to the intense interest.


Thanks, Ben! I'll update the post.

At first glance, it strikes me as a very energy intensive process to produce a palatable product.

We'll see how it turns out. Fascinating.

I read the article. The nutrient medium is Mitake mushroom extract. "Extract" usually implies grain alcohol, as in distillation energy. There is also mention of electrostimulation, fabrication of matrices, control of Ph, temperature, etc. There's also mention of cultivating the tissue in a bioreactor, which is described here:


All in all, it doesn't look like a "free lunch" process at all. But our current system of producing meat sure isn't either, so maybe this has merit. It's weird, but so is sausage when you think about it.

Hey, have you heard about Tilapia tanks and "chicken tractors"?


Dave, who is the 'you' in your question? I've heard of them - even designed some - but I always thought 'tractor' was an odd misnomer.

Hare Tick:

Hey Karl--

"If we can do this with animals, why not with plants?"

We have been. For oh, about fifty years now. The main problem is people generally aren't focussing on how to just make the edible portions, but on how to make the whole plant, or just the roots, or just embryos, or just shoots (okay, sometimes you can eat just the shoots or just the roots, but that doesn't cover things like apples or grains). A lot of what we eat (grains, fruits, etc.) is "storage matter" rather than plant matter, and so far nobody's really seemed to care much about that. I wouldn't be surprised if we could just tweak the hormones a bit and get our vats of fruit, though.

The problem, as usual, is ECONOMICS. You have to have rather well-educated, or at least well-trained, people to conduct tissue culture atm. Paying the workers is the single most expensive part of the whole game.

This doesn't even get into things like Foley was mentioning -- how much do materials, environmental control, and sterility maintanence for this sort of thing actually cost? Probably more than an average farmer could pay for (and guaranteed to be more than an average farmer outside the industrialized world could pay for). There are also the hidden costs, of course. Think lots of fancy and expensive equipment (likely built from nonrenewable materials mined by energy-intensive processes) requiring continual energy inputs (likely from fossil fuels) vs. land, sunlight, and seed. I'm going to sit back and wait for the numbers before I go celebrating anything. Right now it just sounds like a high-tech way to do something we can do just fine on our own on the cheap, something that wouldn't be in the least problematic if we, I dunno, controlled our breeding habits better. The high-tech way clearly has benefits, but would need to be implemented in parts of the world that can't afford it in order to have the impact on global epidemiology folks are talking about. Rebuilding people's organs/tissues for medical purposes is the primary economically viable output I foresee for tissue engineering for at least a few years now.

It's always a tough call -- tissue culture or organic ag. I do know organic technically can't feed the world, but I don't believe that tissue culture is any more ecologically sustainable. I do admit, though, if they start running all the culturing equipment using solar power I'll get excited. :)

Truly remarkable. It's going to be the death knell for already streched (in the UK at least) livestock farmers but to be honest, that's probably worth it.

I'm a vegetarian because of concern with animal-borne pathogens, the ecosystem and animal cruelty. When this comes on to the market I can meet those requirements and have that tummy-filling, finger-licking experience of eating meat.


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