This year scientists in The Netherlands announced that they plan to produce the first laboratory-grown hamburger by October. Using bovine stem cells from living donor animals, researchers have created small strips of muscle in a petri-dish. The muscle fibers will be mixed with prenatal cow’s blood and artificially grown fat to create a hamburger.
Although this may sound like science fiction, this is not the first time this has been attempted or even accomplished. In 2009, scientists produced pork in a lab using cells from a live pig. Problems arose with texture and consistency. The product was a sticky, soggy blob, and because the tissue never “exercised” it lacked the texture of meat from a living animal. However, the same team of scientists is currently working on methods of “exercising” and stretching the muscle to create a more familiar meat texture. Backed by funding by the Dutch government and the Dutch sausage maker Stegeman (which is owned by Sara Lee), this technology does not come cheap. The test tube hamburger that is soon to be unveiled is reported to have cost US$330,000 paid for by an anonymous donor.
In the U.S., Hungarian-born Gabor Forgacs of the University of Missouri is a specialist in tissue engineering working to create replacement organs for humans. Dr. Forgacs was the first scientist in the U.S. to publically eat his lab-grown meat in 2011. His company Modern Meadows, launched in 2011 has attracted a number of investors including the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Initially his product will not be produced on a commercial scale but rather as a niche product similar to Kobe beef which sells for $125-$395 per kilo.
In-vitro meat is not a new idea. Willem Val Eelen, born in 1923 became a prisoner of war when the Nazis invaded The Netherlands on May 10, 1940. Van Eelen was transferred from one camp to the next throughout World War II. After the war, he studied at the University of Amsterdam. Haunted by memories of starvation during the war, Val Eelen was struck by the idea of meat being grown in a laboratory. Van Eelen envisioned placing cells in a nutrient rich solution – as the cells replicated growing muscle tissue, they could then be attached to a biodegradable scaffold. The tissue could then be molded, shaped and stretched into food fit for sale. His vision was not taken seriously at the time, however in 1981 with the discovery of stem cells, scientists began to reconsider. In 1999 Van Eelen received both U.S. and international patents for the Industrial Production of Meat Using Cell Culture Methods.
Today 80% of all farmland is devoted to the production of meat; furthermore, according to the United Nations raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gasses than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. In addition, 50% of all fresh water used on Earth is consumed by animals being raised to be eaten. Even considering these facts, could we as humans manage the moral, economic and ethical issues that would accompany the widespread adoption of this technology?
Many foods such as cheeses and yogurts are grown from cultures, so why does the thought of meat grown from a culture in a laboratory give one the feeling that this is something taboo? Is there something primal and hardwired into the human fabric from millennia of hunting animals for food? Is it because science developed the ability to grow replacement organs and skin for humans in a laboratory first? So many more questions arise. What would the acceptance of test tube meat do to the economies of countries that rely heavily upon the beef industry such as Argentina? What would the effects be upon the farmers worldwide who sell their crops to the animal feed industry? Also, beyond farmers and ranchers, there are truckers, processors, packers, veterinarians, auctioneers, butchers, leather merchants and so on. The global economic impact would be much more far-reaching than we may realize. Additionally, what are the implications of shifting our dependence for the very food we eat onto an extremely small group of people who hold the scientific knowledge to produce it? Would the price of our food be based solely upon intellectual property and scientific patents akin to an I-phone? Test tube meat sounds interesting and increasingly possible, but neither of these factors answers the question – should it be done?