Could lab-grown meat save the human race?

To many, the concept of manufacturing meat seems like a new phenomenon, with advances in genetic science, cloning, and general biology, however, it has a rather in-depth history. The first landmark experiment leading to the development of in vitro meat is the 1912 experiment performed by Alexis Carrel. In these tests, Carrel took tissue culture from an embryonic chicken heart, and used a mechanism of structuring and providing this culture with the nutrients necessary for continued growth, thus aiming to prove that living cells could survive indefinitely under the right conditions. Whilst the results of his experiments were anomalous and were never successfully repeated, it was the first such use of the method which modern, cultured meat, science would use.

Moving forward, one of the first citings of the theoretical possibilities of utilising such technology for making consumable meat came from a rather famous Conservative Prime Minister. Winston Churchill, wrote that “The great mass of human beings, absorbed in the toils, cares and activities of life, are only dimly conscious of the pace at which mankind has begun to travel”. This is the first sentence of Churchill’s 1931 article “Fifty Years Hence”. In the piece, Churchill discusses his predictions and prophecies for the next fifty years, and although Churchill is perhaps a tad optimistic at times, it provides an accurate prediction overall for developments such as nuclear science and cloning. In one paragraph, Churchill writes that “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium”, and thus the concept of in vitro meat was firmly set in motion.

A time travelling Winston Churchill wielding a lab-grown chicken drumstick in the year 2067

Not quite fifty years hence, but a mere eighty-two years later, the first public trial of lab-grown meat for human consumption was broadcast to the world. In 2013, a group of three food critics tested, on live television, the quality of lab-grown meat. At that time the cost of one lab-grown burger was around £250,000. However, since then, the costs have plummeted. Peter Verstrate, the head of Mosa Meats, a company which is planning to mass commercialise cultured meats, stated in April 2015, that he was confident that the commercialisation of lab-grown meat will happen within five years – and he is likely to be correct. Since the 2013 test, the cost of one burger has fallen from that £250,000 price tag to around £8 per piece.

With an ever-growing demand for meat from developing countries, and the mounting environmental concerns around the practice of producing and sustaining the current agricultural industry, lab-grown meat is a welcome and positive story that can, and no doubt will revolutionise the food industry. The cost of meat could be reduced to an all-time low as the technology evolves, including a wide variety of beneficial health implications.

In current procedures, scientists biopsy stem or satellite muscle cells from a group of general muscle cells taken from the animal of choice. The cells taken are responsible for repairing the muscle in the donor animal. These cells are then immersed in a nutrient rich medium which encourages their potentially indefinite growth. To put this growth into context, there can be hundreds of muscle repair cells in just a few strands of muscle tissue, and estimates have suggested that as few as ten of these cells could, under the maximum ideal conditions, produce 50 tonnes of meat.

Next in the process comes an area which scientists have not yet fully mastered; lab-grown cells, much like naturally grown cells, need exercise and general wear and tear to form the same texture as “actual” meat. This problem additionally comes in the structuring of the growth of cells. It has thus far proven difficult to structure the lab-grown cells in such a way that they produce any three-dimensional form of structure. Mainly the procedure creates a thin layer of grown cells, which can be removed and turned into what is essentially a minced meat type substance. To produce a fully formed chicken breast or steak, it would require far more development, but nothing is beyond reach. The main issue is that this common procedure produces only muscle, there is yet to be a method developed to simultaneously grow different cell types (blood, fat, muscle etc) in a natural pattern. However, once these, and a few other obstacles have been overcome, lab-grown meat production could create meat which has an identical likeness to naturally grown meat.

The latest Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) figures suggest that the agricultural industry produces around 14.5% of all total greenhouse gas emissions. Whilst the FAO has stated that emissions from the agricultural industry can, with the right implementation of waste reductions and energy saving techniques, be reduced by a third, it does not make an overall difference due to the increasing demand for agricultural products with a rising population. By the year 2050, it is estimated that the demand for meat and milk will increase 70%. Duncan Williamson, the corporate stewardship manager at WWF-UK, has stated that “Around 30% of global biodiversity loss can be attributed to livestock production”. According to the WWF “The net loss in global forest area during the 1990s was about 94 million hectares (equivalent to 2.4% of total forests). It is estimated that in the 1990s, almost 70% of deforested areas were converted to agricultural land.” Regardless of one’s political position, it is difficult to comprehend the vast scale of the damage caused by the meat industry, and the potential benefits that producing meat in factories could have. An independent study from the Environmental Sciences & Technology Journal has shown that lab-grown beef takes 55% less energy to produce, 4% of the total greenhouse emissions and 1% of the total land use. One of the major criticisms however of the practice, is that since the levels of energy consumption are so high, and estimates as to how much energy will be needed for a level of in vitro meat production on a commercial scale are not known, it is said that the solution could be equally as polluting as the current meat industry, although indirectly. However, with advances in power generation, such as the emergence of cleaner fossil fuel power generation technology, nuclear and renewable energy sources, high energy consumption does not necessarily indicate that the process is not “green”, only that the current method of producing electricity is not.

A problem that will cause us havoc over the next few decades is the growing rate of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in bacteria. Without effective antibiotics, medical procedures will become ever more difficult. The World Health Organisation has stated that without antibiotics, procedures such as “organ transplantation, cancer chemotherapy, diabetes management and major surgery (for example, caesarean sections or hip replacements) become very high risk”. In addition to common diseases such as pneumonia and chest infections could become extremely lethal once again. Such an eventuality would increase the rates of mortality, increase the average length of stay within a hospital, and dramatically and adversely impact the economic standing of nations. For us to prevent widespread antimicrobial resistance, a major step must be taken to do two things: reduce the rate at which microbes are becoming resistant, and two, develop new strains of antibiotics. The latter is a discussion for another time, but the prior is relevant within this context. The intensive farming industry is one of the largest causes of AMR that we’ve identified. In essence, antibiotics are being used within intensive battery farming to ensure that animals are able to survive in squalid conditions, this is used to reduce the price of meat, and to also increase the amount produced. According to a report produced by an independent body chaired by the British economist Jim O’Neill, farming within the US uses up to 70% of antibiotics which are critical to medical use in human beings. These antibiotics are used in healthy animals to both speed up growth, and as a preventative measure to stop disease spreading due to the unhealthy conditions the animals are kept in, as a result, the levels of AMR is becoming ever more prevalent – especially within countries that have massively developed economically over the past 20 or so years. Due to a lack of regulation, antibiotics which are kept as a last resort to save the lives of human in case of widespread AMR are being used within the farming industry, because of this, bacteria is ever more likely to adapt to become resistant. A recent study from China has shown that some strains of E. coli have developed resistance to colistin, a form of polymyxin antibiotic. This antibiotic is a last resort antibiotic, one of the last effective forms in our antibiotics armoury.

The waste runoff from intensive farming is another major concern when antibiotics are used in farming, there is very little that can be done to prevent these antibiotics escaping into the environment. Analysis into sludge at wastewater facilities has shown a growing level of resistance across the spectrum. It is evident that with in vitro meat that there is no necessity to facilitate the rearing of animals, and thus there needs not be any form of antibiotic use over the lifespan of livestock. The effect this has on AMR will be substantial. Potentially positively affecting the lives of millions over the next few decades. If there is a single overwhelming argument in favour of the development and use of commercially viable in vitro meat production, this is it. Opponents to cultured meat state that despite growing levels of AMR in intensively farmed animals, there are precautions which can be taken to ensure general levels of AMR are reduced, namely by regulating and reducing the use of antibiotics within the farming industry, however to do this, the agricultural industry must raise the standards of care for animals, thus increasing the price of meat. This is another area where in vitro meat could one day beat normally reared meat.

The cost of developing a lab-grown burger in 2013 was £250,000, by 2015 that price had dropped to £8. With the technology still in development, it would not be too foolish a projection to suggest that this price will drop further. The cost of meat grown in a lab will almost certainly reach a price that is cheaper than naturally raised meat, with the quality and health implications being better by all measurements. With less of an environmental footprint, a reduced effect on the development of antimicrobial resistance, and with in vitro meat being potentially lower-priced than battery farmed meat, the arguments for its consumption are great. Without even touching upon the morality of consuming another creature in being, the emergence of lab-grown meat is a positive development for society.