In vitro meat, also called victimless meat, cultured meat, tube steak, cruelty-free meat, shmeat, and test-tube meat, is an animal-flesh product that has never been part of a living animal with exception of the fetal calf serum taken from a slaughtered cow.
Photo taken from: TheGuardian.com (Meat Grew in Lab)
In the 21st century, several research projects have worked on in vitro meat in the laboratory. The first in vitro beef burger, created by a Dutch team, was eaten at a demonstration for the press in London in August 2013.
There remain difficulties to be overcome before in vitro meat becomes commercially available. Cultured meat is prohibitively expensive, but it is expected that the cost could be reduced to compete with that of conventionally obtained meat as technology improves.
Differences from conventional meat
Large scale production of in vitro meat may or may not require artificial growth hormones to be added to the culture for meat production.
Researchers have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids could be added to in vitro meat as a health bonus. In a similar way, the omega-3 fatty acid content of conventional meat can also be increased by altering what the animals are fed. An issue of Time magazine has suggested that the in vitro process may also decrease exposure of the meat to bacteria and disease.
Due to the strictly controlled and predictable environments of both in vitro meat farming and vertical farming, it is predicted that there will be reduced exposure to dangerous chemicals like pesticides and fungicides, severe injuries, and wildlife.
Although in vitro meat consists of natural meat cells, consumers may find such a high-tech approach to food production distasteful. In vitro meat has been disparagingly described as ‘Frankenmeat’, reflecting a sentiment that it is unnatural and therefore wrong.
If in vitro meat turns out to be different in appearance, taste, smell, texture, or other factors, it may not be commercially competitive with conventionally produced meat. The lack of fat and bone may also be a disadvantage, for these parts make appreciable culinary contributions. However, the lack of bones and/or fat may make many traditional meats like Buffalo wings more palatable to small children. Colorful in vitro meatball products specially tailored to their dietary needs could allow children to get accustomed to eating in vitro meat.
Research has shown that environmental impacts of cultured meat are significantly lower than normally slaughtered beef. For every hectare that is used for vertical farming and/or in vitro meat manufacturing, anywhere between 10 and 20 hectares of land may be converted from conventional agriculture usage back into its natural state. Vertical farms (in addition to in vitro meat facilities) could exploit methane digesters to generate a small portion of its own electrical needs. Methane digesters could be built on site to transform the organic waste generated at the facility into biogas which is generally composed of 65% methane along with other gasses. This biogas could then be burned to generate electricity for the greenhouse or a series of bioreactors.
A study by researchers at Oxford and the University of Amsterdam found that in vitro meat was “potentially … much more efficient and environmentally-friendly”, generating only 4% greenhouse gas emissions, reducing the energy needs of meat generation by up to 45%, and requiring only 2% of the land that the global meat/livestock industry does. The patent holder Willem van Eelen, the journalist Brendan I. Koerner, and Hanna Tuomisto, a PhD student from Oxford University all believe it has less environmental impact. This is in contrast to cattle farming, “responsible for 18% of greenhouse gases” and causing more damage to the environment than the combined effects of the world’s transportation system. Vertical farming may completely eliminate the need to create extra farmland in rural areas along with in vitro meat. Their combined role may create a sustainable solution for a cleaner environment.
One skeptic is Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who speculates that the energy and fossil fuel requirements of large scale in vitro meat production may be more environmentally destructive than producing food off the land. However, it has been indicated that both vertical farming in urban areas and the activity of in vitro meat facilities will cause very little harm to the species of wildlife that live around the facilities. Many natural resources will be spared from depletion due to the conservation efforts made by both vertical farming and in vitro meat, making them ideal technologies for an overpopulated world. Conventional farming, on the other hand, kills ten wildlife animals per hectare each year. Converting 4 hectares (10 acres) of farmland from its man-made condition back into either pristine wilderness or grasslands would save approximately 40 animals while converting 1 hectare (2 acres) of that same farmland back into the state it was in prior to settlement by human beings would save approximately 80 animals.
The role of genetic modification
Techniques of genetic engineering, such as insertion, deletion, silencing, activation, or mutation of a gene, are not required to produce in-vitro meat. Furthermore, in-vitro meat is composed of a tissue or collection of tissues, not an organism. Therefore, it is not a GMO (Genetically Modified Organism). Since in-vitro meat is simply cells grown in a controlled, artificial environment, some have commented that cultured meat more closely resembles hydroponic vegetables, rather than GMO vegetables.
More research is being done on in-vitro meat, and although the production of in-vitro meat does not require techniques of genetic engineering, there is discussion among researchers about utilizing such techniques to improve the quality and sustainability of in-vitro meat. Fortifying in-vitro meat with nutrients such as beneficial fatty acids is one improvement that can be facilitated through genetic modification. The same improvement can be made without genetic modification, by manipulating the conditions of the culture medium. Genetic modification may also play a role in the proliferation of muscle cells. The introduction of myogenic regulatory factors, growth factors, or other gene products into muscle cells may increase production past the capacity of conventional meat.
To avoid the use of any animal products, the use of photosynthetic algae and cyanobacteria has been proposed to produce the main ingredients for the culture media, as opposed to the very commonly used fetal bovine or horse serum. Some researchers suggest that the ability of algae and cyanobacteria to produce ingredients for culture media can be improved with certain technologies, most likely not excluding genetic engineering.
The Australian bioethicist Julian Savulescu said “Artificial meat stops cruelty to animals, is better for the environment, could be safer and more efficient, and even healthier. We have a moral obligation to support this kind of research. It gets the ethical two thumbs up.”Animal welfare groups are generally in favor of the production of in vitro meat because it does not have a nervous system and therefore cannot feel pain. Reactions of vegetarians to in vitro meat vary, some feel the in vitro meat presented to the public in August 2013 was not vegetarian as fetal calf serum was used in the growth medium.
Independent inquiries may be set up by certain governments to create a degree of standards for in vitro meat. Laws and regulations on the proper creation of in vitro meat products would have to be modernized to adapt to this newer food product. Some societies may decide to block the creation of in vitro meat for the “good of the people” – making its legality in certain countries a questionable matter.
In vitro meat needs technically sophisticated production methods making it harder for communities to produce food self-sufficiently and potentially increasing dependence on global food corporations.
Jews disagree whether in vitro meat is kosher (food that may be consumed, according to Jewish dietary laws). Some Muslim scholars have stated that in vitro meat would be allowed by Islamic law if the original cells and growth medium were halal.
The production of in vitro meat is currently very expensive – in 2008 it was about US$1 million for a piece of beef weighing 250 grams (0.55 lb.) – and it would take considerable investment to switch to large scale production. However, the in Vitro Meat Consortium has estimated that with improvements to current technology there could be considerable reductions in the cost of in vitro meat. They estimate that it could be produced for €3500/ton (US$5037/ton), which is about twice the cost of unsubsidized conventional European chicken production.
In a March 2015 interview with Australia’s ABC, Mark Post said that the marginal cost of his team’s original €250,000 burger was now €8.00. He estimates that technological advancements would allow the product to be cost-competitive to traditionally sourced beef in approximately ten years.
As “2012 State of the Future Report” states:
It is estimated that growing pure meat without growing animals would generate 96% lower GHG emissions, use 45% less energy, reduce land use by 99%, and cut water use by 96% compared with growing animals for meat. Therefore, it is of high importance to the environment if we could successfully make it commercially available to the public.