I rarely eat meat but last week, I was in the mood for spaghetti Bolognese. So I got this obvious brown bag from the butcher’s counter in the supermarket and tried to hide it deep in my basket, covering it with a less reprehensible organic salad. It felt like buying a porn video (in an inconspicuous brown bag…). But why?
Eating meat becomes a social no-go among my friends – for a good reason! Global meat consumption reaches absurd dimensions; last year, 1.5 billion animals were slaughtered in the USA and about 750 million in the comparatively small country Germany. Our juicy steak comes with a bitter taste: most animals are kept in mass stocks under adverse conditions and are treated with hormones and antibiotics. But besides animals, nature suffers from greenhouse gases, produced by farting livestock, the massive transport of meat around the globe, cleared range land, and slaughter wastes.
Since social rethinking is a slow process and awareness cannot be enforced through all social classes, we have to work on the meat! Already in 1931, the English Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) came up with the idea, that we should only grow the parts of the animal, which we actually eat. Seventy years later, the first edible fish fillet, generated from goldfish stem cells, was presented to the public and in 2007, the In Vitro Meat Consortium was established. Supported by governments and non-profit organizations, researchers are working on how to feed the hungry, unreasonable world with meat. In 2013, the first in vitro burger was served by researchers from the Netherlands and the burger was evaluated as “ok” and “close to reality”. But with a production price of 250000 dollars, it was quite pricy…
The generate in vitro meat, a tiny piece of muscle is cut from the animal and a special group of cells, the myoblasts, are picked. Upon a certain stimulus, myoblasts divide and form muscle fibers. Theoretically, 10000 kg of meat could be produced from a 1 cm piece of muscle. In the laboratory, myoblasts need some support: they are grown in culture medium, which is similar to blood, and they can hold on to a kind of Velcro, which serves as anchor point, like a bone would do. On top of that, artificial vessels, created by a 3D-printer, provide the nutrient supply in bigger “pieces of meat”. Et voilà, that’s shmeat (sheet + meat)!
A burger patty is easy to create but a complex steak, marbled with fat, is a real challenge! But more than 30 research groups all over the world are taking this challenge and the results become more convincing. The price is still high, but costs will drop once a big scale production, following a routine protocol, will be established. The next hurdle to take is the acceptance of shmeat.
This all sounds frankensteinish to you? It definitely is, but visiting a slaughter house would maybe change your mind. If we cannot minimize our meat consumption, a compromise is necessary. Some years ago, genetic engineering of plants and in-vitro fertilization caused massive public disgust. Nowadays, we are (unwittingly) eating these plants and couples, who cannot have babies, get help in the laboratory. Growing organs for medical issues is the Holy Grail, but growing meat to feed the world is absurd?
Let’s think about the pros of shmeat:
- reduction of antibiotic resistances and hormonal induced cancers in humans (because we take up, what the animal was fed)
- better control of the contamination of meat
- possibility to create healthier meat
- fewer pests (no transport, no mass stocks)
- more space for forests
- less greenhouse gases
- eating meat with a better conscience
The (resolvable) contras of shmeat:
- decline of this branch of the economy
- probably more expensive than real meat
Check, if you get a watery mouth by visiting Bistro In Vitro 😉
XOXO, your Nerd