A form of cellular agriculture, cultured meat, or in vitro meat (clean meat) is meat produced in the lab using animal cells instead of slaughtered animals.

The Popularization Of Cultured Meat

Production of cultured meat involves the same techniques used in regenerative medicine.

Jon F. Vein, in 1998, applied for and got a patent (US 6,835,390 B1) for producing tissue-engineered meat fit for human consumption. He proposed growing fat and muscle cells in an integrated fashion for creating products such as fish, beef, and poultry.

The real boost for cultured meat came when Jason Matheny popularized the cultured meat in the early 2000s. Jason Matheny co-authored a seminal paper discussing cultured meat production.

Mark Post, teaching at Maastricht University, showcased a proof-of-concept in 2013. He created a burger patty using cultured meat grown directly from animal cells. Since then, many prototypes have got media attention.

Dr. Post, through Mosa Meat, has plans to bring cultured meat to consumer plates by 2021. However, its’ commercial viability is still a suspect as consumers have not yet tasted and accepted it.

Besides Mosa Meat, several other startups, promoted by biggies in the food industry, are working on this concept. The stated ambition is to produce cultured meat to humans at an affordable price by 2022.

Cultured meat got a leg up in 2018 when the US FDA set up a regulatory framework that opened new ways for marketing cultured meats.

So, why is artificial meat so important?

Global Diet

The FAO or Food and Agriculture Organization, a UN organization, has stated that conventional meat production does account for nearly 18% of greenhouse gases, 30% of land use, as well as 8% of global consumption of water and energy.

FAO also estimates meat consumption will double by 2050, while production has already reached its peak. The solution – artificial meat.

According to Dr. Post, the bioconversion rate of cows is only 15%, which means that they produce only 15 g of meat per 100 g of vegetable protein. The only sustainable way of increasing meat production is to enhance the efficiency rate.

While different techniques have been tried over the years, they failed to take off due to cultural preconceptions and the inability to mimic the texture and taste of conventional meat.

The Process

The first step in developing artificial meat is isolating some satellite muscle cells from a fully grown animal.

The physiology function of these cells is participating in muscle regeneration. These are stem cells that can multiply and under differentiate into muscle cells.

These satellite cells are regenerated in bioreactors, sterile enclosures that contain nutrient liquids, with growth factors to aid rapid proliferation.

Once converted into muscle cells, these get mechanically assembled into muscle tissues, followed by other processes to become a consumable artificial steak.

According to Dr. Mark Post, cultured meat production would help significantly reduce the risk of transmission of infections from animals to humans as well as substantially reducing the environmental impact of producing meat.

Other experts have also supported this cellular agriculture as they start that global population will touch 10 billion by 2050 and feeding these many mouths would be an envious task while taking into consideration its environmental impact and respecting animals.

It’s Not a Smooth Road Ahead

Studies have stated that cultured meat offers many advantages compared to conventional meat.

Artificial meat will help in reducing greenhouse gas somewhere between 75 to 95%, consume about 7 to 45% less energy, and lead to a whooping saving of nearly 95% water.

However, recent studies have tempered down the euphoria around cultured meat. Studies have noted that previous studies on artificial meat don’t take into consideration the environmental impact of lab-grown meat in the long term.

It could be much more than previously envisaged. Recent studies not only focused on greenhouse gases but also on the energy cost used for building the infrastructure necessary for cell culture.

Animals are naturally protected from infections due to their immune system. This does not hold for lab-grown meat. In a nutrient-rich environment, harmful organisms can multiply quickly than animal cells.

Lack of proper sterility can result in humans eating a bacteria-filled steak.

Cell cultures in the pharmaceutical industry are done in a controlled environment and sanitized "clean rooms."These companies ensure sterility through the use of disposable plastic materials.

While this reduces contamination risks, it ends up generating plastic waste, something which the ecosystem is already struggling to address.

Some culture materials use stainless steel which can be either washed with detergents or steam-sterilized, but these also have a considerable impact on the environment.

Some studies have also shown that the carbon footprint of the pharmaceutical industry is nearly 55% more than the automotive industry, the usual whipping boys of environmentalists.

One should also not forget that livestock and its ecosystem is not just used for meat production. Pastures help in trapping a substantial amount of carbon.

Livestock also eats up a majority of plant waste unfit for human consumption. It also produces fertilizer which has the least impact on soil. One wonders what will happen to this ecosystem if one transition to cultured meat.

Significant Risks With Anabolic Hormones, Endocrine Disruptors

Muscle volume grows slowly in animals. Muscular satellite cells take time to multiply. For obtaining something that takes several years in a few weeks in a lab requires continuous stimulation by proliferating the satellite cells with various growth factors, which also includes anabolic sex hormones.

Conventional meat contains these hormones. These hormones stimulate protein synthesis, which results in increased muscle mass.

The pharmaceutical industry calls these "natural growth factors." However, overexposure to these has had deleterious effects. Europe has banned using these growth factors in agriculture since 1981.

One does not know what will be the concentration of these growth factors in artificial meat. Additionally, studies have shown that plastic products have a presence of toxic elements in them.

Endocrine disruptors that interfere with hormones can get transferred from plastic to the food. These same has also been documented in cultures grown in plastic containers.

Unless plastic use is reduced during the production of cultured meat, the chances of meat getting contaminated with endocrine disruptors are very high.

Education is The Need Of The Hour

Marketers and promoters of cultured meat present it as a high-tech product that can save the ecology and is morally alright.

Artificial meat can only dominate the traditional market if it is affordably priced and is profitable for producers. This will require production in large quantities, and that again raises the questions about the environment and health, given the scale of production.

It should also be remembered that higher meat consumption is detrimental to both humans and the environment. That said, many consumers still do accept these conclusions or are not even aware of them.

To develop a sustainable and healthy diet, it is essential to provide necessary information and education, which will stimulate informed debate on the benefits of meat consumption.