Being a vegetarian since birth, I have grown to loathe the smell and any accidental bite of meat. Every hamburger patty and bacon strip reminds me of the inhumane treatment of farm animals necessary for our momentary enjoyment. Of course, this association has been ingrained in me by my many years of not eating meat and the act of justifying my position to others. But for those that have grown up eating meat, following a cultural norm, the inhumanity of the industry is separated from the act of consuming meat. And society is the only one to blame for this disconnect. Children fall in love with talking animal characters on shows, and then, an hour later, eat meat products made from the very animals on that show. For years, my instinctive desire was to change others’ views towards the treatment of animals and production of meat, hopefully causing them to adopt opinions similar to mine. Although ethical animal treatment was my primary concern, my reasons for becoming vegetarian began to expand: for every 100g of vegetable protein fed to cows, only 15g of edible animal protein is produced, making the use of livestock for meat incredibly inefficient; these animals produce mass amounts of feces, polluting the water and soil of farmlands, and the pollution increases as this meat is transported from rural farmlands to suburban grocery stores; over 1,000,000 km2 of forestland is lost every year, primarily for agricultural uses; meat both harbors pathogens and antibiotic-resistant bacteria and can cause a variety of diseases through overconsumption; and the list goes on. However, I soon realized the time and effort it would take to change a mindset so greatly embedded in our culture. And, despite every argument for becoming a vegetarian, there is one squelching response: “But, meat just tastes so good.” This response, although frustrating, is entirely valid. How could an entire society be expected to sacrifice their hedonic desires for the abstract idea of reducing animal suffering? Researchers—for economic, health, and environmental reasons in addition to animal welfare—have taken a different approach. Instead of attempting to fight the biological and societal need for meat, they used animal stem cells to actually grow meat.
Stem cells are not differentiated, which means they do not possess the genetic markers that are characteristic of normal cells. The placement of these genetic markers, called histones, determines the type of cell that will be formed by only allowing transcription of certain portions of the cell’s DNA. The benefit of stem cells is their quick proliferation and ability to differentiate into any desired type of cell. So, once these first cells are taken from a healthy animal in a painless fashion, they are placed in a culture that supplies them with the nutrients to grow and reproduce. During this process, an edible scaffold functions as a material for cells to attach to. In order to stimulate the movement of the cells, this scaffold is made from stimuli-sensitive material that stretches with changes in temperature and pH. The batch of cells is grown in a bioreactor, which, by fluctuating the pH and temperature, stretches the scaffold and ultimately “exercises” the cells. Without an artificial circulatory system to supply oxygen and to extend capillaries into the system, labs cannot grow large pieces of meat. They can, however, grow several small pieces and assemble them at a later stage. In August of 2013, Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University performed this process repeatedly until he had grown tens of billions of cells into ring-shaped muscle tissues. He then layered the tissues to form larger pieces of meat, later made into a hamburger.
Despite the fact that the cells were soaked in fetal calf serum and the burger cost about $330,000, the production of lab-grown meat is revolutionary. In the future, farm animals will not be the sole source of meat, and the livestock population will slowly be restored to its natural state, without any artificial hormones or excessive antibiotics in their systems. Not only does this biotechnological option provide a way to consume meat without the mass murder of animals, but it also benefits the environment. Stem cell meat uses 45% less energy, emits 96% less greenhouse gas waste, and uses 99% less land than traditional farm-grown meat. Also, since this technology can viably (in the coming decades) be housed in any lab or factory, the accessibility of meat will be increased, helping to solve the global food crisis. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, meat consumption is expected to rise from 229 x 109 kg/year in 1999 to 465 x 109 kg/year by 2050. With a growing population and rising demand for meat globally, this technology proves a greener and more considerate approach to the shortcomings of the meat industry.
The expense, as with all innovative technology, will be reduced as it is made more accessible, and labs are working to find an alternative to the animal products used in scaffolds and cultures. However, there still exists a major issue that determines the success of stem cell meat: how the public perceives it. The common reaction to eating a product grown and processed in a lab is one of disgust. It doesn’t help that the meat produced is white and lacks its signature taste due to the lack of fat, among other substances. Researchers working with Professor Post attempted to remedy the odd color by adding red myoglobin and to mimic the flavor of farm-grown meat by adding breadcrumbs, caramel, and saffron. But despite how authentic the burger may taste in coming years, there still exists the “ick factor” that companies selling synthetic meat must overcome. However, just as we are able to isolate the slaughterhouse conditions from our consumption of natural meat, in due time we will also be able to separate the growth of stem cell meat in a laboratory from eating a synthetic hamburger. The sustainability of our consumption habits may depend on it.
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Jha, Alok. “Synthetic Meat: How the World’s Costliest Burger Made It on to the Plate.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 06 Aug. 2013. Web. 25 June 2014.
“World’s First Lab-grown Burger Eaten.” BBC News. BBC News, 5 Aug. 2013. Web. 22 June 2014.