Editorial feature– Culturing meat

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2008:

Now among the most talked-about
scientific conferences of 2008, the three-day In
Vitro Meat Symposium was little noticed by anyone
but the handful of participants when convened on
April 9 in the Oslo suburb of Aas.
Home of the Norwegian University of Life
Sciences, best known for associations with the
Nobel Prize, Aas almost every week hosts obscure
and esoteric scientific conferences. Few rate
even a press release. The timing of the In Vitro
Meat Symposium, however, could not have been
better. In Aas, the assembled scientists and a
few investors compared notes on products most
often described as “test tube,” “synthetic,” or
“cultured” meat. Around the world, mass media
reported near-simultaneous civil unrest in
multiple nations resulting from a global grain

The most obvious and politically
inflammatory cause of the grain shortage was the
diversion of up to 20% of the U.S. corn crop to
making ethanol fuel. But the ethanol industry
quickly pointed out that the U.S. had in fact
raised and exported more grain in 2007 than in
2006. The real problem, ethanol advocates
claimed, was that more grain is now going to
livestock. Soaring meat consumption in China and
India means less grain available elsewhere to
bake into bread and pasta.
This is exactly what a June 1997 ANIMAL
PEOPLE cover feature projected would occur at
about this time, but without particular
originality, since others had seen the same
crunch coming for 30 years.
Seeking ways to have meat and Hummers
too, media pundits became aware through Alexis
Madrigal of Wired.com that the Aas geeks might
have an answer.
Madrigal specializes in covering obscure
and esoteric scientific conferences to extract
hints about coming trends in technological
“Meat grown in giant tanks known as
bioreactors would cost between $5,200-$5,500 a
ton,” or 3,300 to 3,500 euros, Madrigal
reported. Economic analysts speaking at the In
Vitro Meat Symposium projected that this would be
“cost-competitive with European beef prices,”
Madrigal wrote.
Assessed Madrigal, “Rapidly evolving
technology and increasing concern about the
environmental impact of meat production are signs
that vat-grown meat is moving from scientific
curiosity to consumer option. In vitro meat
production is a specialized form of tissue
engineering,” he explained, “a biomedical
practice in which scientists try to grow animal
tissues like bone, skin, kidneys, and hearts”
for possible transplant. “Proponents say it will
ultimately be a more efficient way to make animal
meat, which would reduce the carbon footprint of
meat productsŠResearchers can currently grow
small amounts of meat in the lab, and have even
been able to get heart cells to beat in Petri
dishes. Growing muscle cells on an industrial
scale is the next step.”
Elaborated Johns Hopkins University
researcher Jason Matheny, who is among the 11
cofounders of the nonprofit cultured meat
development firm New Harvest, “To produce meat
now, 75 to 95% of what we feed an animal is lost
because of metabolism and inedible structures
like skeleton or neurological tissue. With
cultured meat, there is no body to support;
you’re only building the meat that eventually
gets eaten.”
Nature engineered skeletons and
neurological tissues that facilitate locomotion
because of the necessity of enabling animals to
move toward food and away from danger. These
abilities are so little needed in the factory
farm environment where pigs and poultry are
raised, in particular, that significant
economic losses result each year from animals
whose underdeveloped legs collapse, causing them
to suffocate beneath their own bloated weight.
Under pressure from animal advocates,
some factory farm conglomerates are reluctantly
moving toward housing that allows pigs and
chickens more room to exercise–while fantasizing
about using genetic engineering to breed
animality out of animals altogether.
As a genetic engineering proponent once
told ANIMAL PEOPLE in an off-the-record briefing,
“If the problem you people have with meat is
strictly with slaughtering sentient beings, we
should be able to get rid of sentience. An
animal doesn’t have to be sentient to be
slaughtered–it just needs to grow and gain
weight. From the food industry point of view,
the less sentient we can make an animal be, the
Culturing meat approaches the same problem from the opposite direction.
“There is nothing in the production of
cultured meat that necessarily involves genetic
modification,” explains the New Harvest web
site. “The cells that can be used to produce
cultured meat are muscle and stem cells from farm
animals. It is possible, however, that
genetically modifying a muscle cell would allow
it to proliferate a greater number of times in
culture, and may thus make cultured meat
production more economical.
“In theory, a single cell could be used
to produce enough meat to feed the global
population for a year,” New Harvest continues.
“It is possible to take a muscle biopsy from a
live farm animal and culture the isolated muscle
cells. If stem cells are used, these would
likely be from a farm animal embryo. After the
cells are multiplied, they are attached to a
sponge-like scaffold,” which substitutes for an
animal’s skeleton, “and are 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.
“In biomedical research,” adds New
Harvest, “most cell cultures have used media made
from the blood of cow fetuses. But researchers
have now developed media made from plants and
“Within several years,” New Harvest
says, “it may be possible to produce cultured
meat in a processed form, like sausage,
hamburger, or chicken nuggets, with
modifications of existing technologies.
Producing unprocessed meats, like steaks or pork
chops, would involve technologies that do not
yet exist, that may take a decade or longer to
New Harvest contends that, “Cultured
meat has the potential to be healthier, safer,
less polluting, and more humane than
conventional meatŠmore efficient than
conventional meat production in use of energy,
land, and water; and it should produce less
“Cultured meat is unnatural,” New
Harvest concedes, “in the same way that bread,
cheese, yogurt, and wine are unnatural. All
involve processing ingredients derived from
natural sources. Arguably, the production of
cultured meat is less unnatural than raising farm
animals in intensive confinement, injecting them
with synthetic hormones, and feeding them
artificial diets made up of antibiotics and
animal wastes.”

Dutch investment

The environmental argument has reportedly
already proved persuasive to the Dutch
government. The $5 million Dutch investment in
cultured meat research and development may be
little more than a token contribution toward the
total cost of getting cultured meat into food
processing plants and supermarkets, but stands
in promising contrast to many previous Dutch
schemes to get more economic output out of
limited land by using new technology.
Among the most notorious was draining the
Zuider Zee estuary after World War II to create
“polders,” salty fields brought into often
marginal cultivation at enormous cost to wildlife
habitat. Pumps keeping the below-sea-level
polders drained are powered by a nuclear reactor
which itself could be inundated if the North Sea
rises slightly due to global warming.
Crating veal calves and so-called
“milk-fed spring lambs” were space-saving Dutch
innovations in the early 1960s. Administering
steroids to livestock to make them grow faster
apparently started in The Netherlands at about
the same time.
But concern for farm animal welfare also
emerged earlier in The Netherlands than almost
anywhere else. In recent years, as eastern
European nations with vastly larger potential for
“factory farming” have entered the European Union
and captured ever-growing livestock market share,
Dutch producers have recognized that their unique
market niche is a reputation–deserved or
not–for raising animals in clean and reasonably
natural conditions.
The Dutch gamble in funding cultured meat
experiments is that cultured meat can claim
European market share which might otherwise go to
factory pork and poultry producers in Bulgaria,
Poland, and Romania, and will not cut into the
Dutch upper-end cattle industry.
The projected economics might almost work
in Europe, but globally, noted New York Times
writer Andrew C. Revkin, “The costs of cultured
meat can’t come close yet to competing with,
say, unsubsidized chicken.”
Yet the real growth opportunity for what
New Harvest terms “cultured meat in a processed
form” is in the developing world.
Global meat consumption in 2007 was in
the vicinity of 270 million metric tons, at a
recent rate of increase of about 4.7 million tons
per year, almost entirely in the developing
world. Per capita consumption in the U.S. and
western Europe is static or even declining.
“One could envision some day a
solar-powered facility in southern California or
Singapore basically turning sunlight and
desalinated seawater into growth medium, and
then tons of cruelty-free, sustainable nuggets
of chicken essence,” Revkin allowed.
But Revkin wondered where further
investment would come from. As In Vitro Meat
Symposium participants acknowledged, “Costs for
research, large-scale testing, and public
relations will be significant.” Some
“anticipated that governments and nonprofit
groups would chip in. That seems idealistic, at
best,” Revkin assessed, “in a world with deeply
entrenched interests linking ranching, the
agrochemical industry, and giant restaurant
PETA challenged Revkin’s skepticism by
offering a prize of $1 million to anyone who can
get cultured meat into commercial production by
2012–but while a prize may provide incentive,
it is not actual investment. Nor can it be used
as collateral. Neither does any developer appear
to believe commercial production can be achieved
in only three and a half years, at any level of
“In vitro meat is a godsend,” PETA
founder Ingrid Newkirk told New York Times writer
John Schwartz.
Utrecht University cultured meat
researcher Henk P. Haagsman told Schwartz that
the PETA prize might “spark more interest to
invest in the technology.” But Haagsman added,
according to Schwartz, that “he would not like
to see the field dominated by the animal welfare
issue, since environmental and public health
issues are such important drivers for this
research. Another scientist at Utrecht, Bernard
Roelen, said via e-mail that even with strong
financing, it would be extremely difficult to
produce commercially viable quantities of in
vitro meat before 2012,” Schwartz finished.
The big obstacle to cultured meat is
convincing major players in the food industry to
back it–and that requires convincing them not
only that it can be produced at competitive
prices, but also that consumers want it.
Grocers may be deterred by their experience of 20
years of often costly consumer resistance to milk
produced with the aid of bovine somatotropin,
called BST for short, and to foods containing
genetically modified organisms, better known as
GMOs and “Franken-foods.”
The meat industry can be expected to
promote opposition to a perceived rival, and to
pursue legal action against even calling
“cultured meat” by the name “meat,” much as the
dairy industry has fought the use of the term
“soy milk.”
“Once cultured meat is made,” Madrigal
of Wired.com concluded, “consumer acceptance is
far from assured. What cultured meat will taste
like is up in the air. Some scientists think it
could be used to create novel foods that won’t be
quite meat, but won’t quite be anything else.
Most of the trends in food run counter to
high-tech meat production,” Madrigal observed.
“Heirloom tomatoes, organic produce, and the
free-range-raised meat that pack the aisles of
Whole Foods harken to lower-tech eras.”
Commented New York Times “Dining” section
columnist Mark Bittman, who is author of How to
Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless
Recipes for Great Food, “Does anyone remember
Olestra? You can’t invent food; or at least no
one has done so successfully,” with the
exception, Bittman allowed, of the orange juice
substitute Tang.
Bittman expressed skepticism of the
environmental claims for cultured meat. “Fish
farming, the latest attempt to increase the
number of animals available for human
consumption, certainly leaves a lot to be
desired,” Bittman wrote. “Yet we’re going to
trust technology to develop test-tube meat?”
Indeed, some of the environmental claims
for cultured meat uncomfortably resembled claims
made for ethanol, before the ecological,
economic, and ethical consequences of using a
food crop to make motor fuel became clear. Just
as making ethanol requires substantial energy
input, narrowing any net benefit from using
ethanol instead of gasoline, cultured meat
production would require extensive nutrient and
energy inputs, and the nutrients would require
pre-processing into a medium which could be
absorbed easily by the meat cultures.
Cultured meat producers would have to
replace the digestive systems of animals with a
high-volume system of synthetic digestion. This
is essentially what the food manufacturing
industry already does, through a combination of
cooking and chemical processes. Agribusiness
does not, for the most part, feed livestock on
processed material–except for the use of
recycled manure and slaughterhouse waste, which
is economically efficient precisely because it
uses waste.
Cultured meat could be grown in the blood
of slaughtered animals, and perhaps will be.
Perhaps cultured meat could be grown in manure
slurries, too, as mushrooms are. Yet each step
toward economic efficiency using recycled
materials may be a step away from consumer
Meanwhile, the more efficient cultured
meat producers are in making use of the
biological input materials, the more
concentrated the remaining effluent will be, and
the more difficult it will be to recycle or
dispose of safely. The ecologically redeeming
virtue of manure is that it can be used as
fertilizer–but the more concentrated it becomes,
the more difficult it is to use safely. Cultured
meat effluent might be, in effect,
hyper-concentrated manure.
But perhaps engineering uses for cultured
meat production waste can be done as part of the
cultured meat development process.
“There is already an alternative to meat
out there, one that can not only improve
individual health but decrease harm to animals
and the environment,” reminded Bittman. “It’s
called vegetables. Unfortunately, there are no
gold mines in test-tube broccoli.”
Agreed Friends of Animals legal counsel
Lee Hall, “The in vitro meat idea only
reinforces the notion that flesh belongs in our
diet, while ignoring the beauty and kindness of
Editorialized The New York Times on April
23, 2008, “The meat substitute niche is
currently occupied largely by soy,” the chief
ingredient of meat analog products.
Tofu, seitan, and tempeh appear to have
an almost insurmountable economic advantage over
cultured meat, and perhaps an enduring aesthetic
edge as well, if cultured meat is marketed as a
“meat substitute.”
But since cultured meat will for all
practical purposes be meat, albeit not from a
slaughtered animal, the developers have in mind
competing chiefly with actual meat.
“We are disgusted by the conventional
meat industry, which raises animals–especially
chicken and pigs–in inhumane confinement systems
that cause significant environmental damage,” The
New York Times editorial continued. “There is
every reason to change the way meat is produced,
to make it more ethical, more humane. But the
result of the technology that PETA hopes to
reward could be the end of domesticated farm
animalsŠIt will be a barren world if the herds
and flocks disappear in favor of meat grown in a
laboratory tank.”
Writers of letters to The New York Times
overwhelmingly rejected that argument. Longtime
ANIMAL PEOPLE reader Scott Plous of Middletown,
Connecticut, recommended that cultured meat
should instead be called “clean meat.”
Commented Animal Liberation author Peter
Singer, to Schwartz of The New York Times, “If
it is harder to move people on ethical grounds
than it is to provide a sustainable humane
substitute, I’m all for the substitute.”
Said ANIMAL PEOPLE president and
administrator Kim Bartlett, “I remember reading
a science fiction book in the early 1970s that
described a time in which lab-grown meat was
available, but the main characters were willing
to pay for a black market cut of real meat. I
wasn’t a vegetarian then, but wondered why
anyone would want to eat meat from a real animal
if they could get it without the suffering and
dying. At that time, I still believed that
humans need to eat meat. It took me another ten
years or so to find out that vegetarianism was
actually an option–I was in Texas, and had
never met a vegetarian. Once I had stopped
eating meat for a time, it became repulsive to
me, but if lab-grown meat had been available, I
would have given up the real stuff many years
“I totally agree with opponents of the
idea that people are better off eating tofu,
tempeh, and seitan instead of meat.
Eventually, human beings will adopt a
sustainable plant-based diet,” Bartlett
believes, as science fiction writers including
the creators of Star Trek have long envisioned,
“but I am not optimistic that such an enormous
shift will occur in the next hundred years. In
many parts of the world now, just as it was for
me growing up in Texas in the 1950s and ’60s,
people believe they need meat, and it is going
to be a very long time before they willingly
adopt a vegetarian diet. Though vegetarianism
may be imposed on them by food shortages and/or
climate change, they will always try to get meat
unless there is a shift in perspective. If
lab-grown meat can be marketed so that die-hard
meat-eaters will choose it instead of meat from
slaughtered animals, then I am all for it.”

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