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Synthetic Meat–It’s Evolution, Inevitability, and Future

Did you grow up eating meat?  Do you reminisce upon traditions in which your family and friends came together in ceremonial fashion to carve a turkey?

And does your mouth salivate when you see a perfectly-cooked, juicy filet?  Do you satisfy your hunger pangs when you bite into a glazed, marbleized ribeye steak?

If you answered yes to the above questions, then you grew up on a tradition of eating meat and probably can’t imagine life without it.

And if that’s the case, then the idea of synthetic meat may make you feel uneasy.

Synthetic meat?

Yes, we can now grow and replicate meat in the laboratory from live animal cells, without the need to raise and butcher livestock.

In fact, the world’s first laboratory-based burger was taste tested in London in August 2013.   It was grown in the laboratory from muscle cells of a cow, and grown in a ring pattern to create a burger patty.

When compared to animal meat, the testers noted that while the cultured meat had the texture and juiciness of animal meat, it lacked taste.

Although it may be 5 to 10 years before we see synthetic meat in stores, the fact is that environmental, health, and demand considerations will likely render it a necessary alternative to animal-based meat in the next coming decades.

Why?

Let’s take a bird’s-eye view of our meat-production industry: most obviously, it’s one that produces meat on a very large scale.

To produce such meat, we grow grains, channel water, clear land for grazing, and utilize fossil fuels to raise a living organism, complete with fully-functional organs to support respiratory, circulatory, and digestive systems.

These life-support systems enable growth over a several-month period, which leads to the production of flesh.  To accelerate flesh production, we may feed animals grains outside of their natural diets, inject growth hormones, and limit their mobility to maximum flesh production from their caloric diet.

And when the flesh reaches its apex over the animal’s lifetime, we strip it of its flesh, thereby contributing to our meat market.

What’s wrong with this meat-production method?

It is limited to a meat-conversion process–we convert grains and water to raise a living organism, which in turn produces flesh over its lifetime.  This process of meat conversion is grossly inefficient and not sustainable.

Why?

Because meat conversion is one of the most taxing, wasteful, and draining production methods our country has ever utilized.

As examples, more than one-third of all raw materials and fossil fuels used in the U.S. are devoted to raising animals for food.

To illustrate, cows must consume 16 pounds of vegetation to create 1 pound of flesh.  To account for such inefficient flesh production, more than 80% of the corn and 95% of the oats we grow are used to feed livestock.  The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity sufficient to feed the entire human population.

That’s just food.  Regarding water, more than half of all fresh water in the U.S. is used to raise animals for food.  It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat.

Regarding land usage, 45% of the total land mass in the U.S. is used to raise animals for food.  And 87% of all agricultural land in the U.S. is used to raise animals for food.

And as a result of clearing approximately 260 million acres of U.S. forest to create agricultural land to produce feed for livestock, the meat industry has been blamed for more than 85% of all soil erosion in the U.S.

It doesn’t stop there.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency, raising animals for food is the number-one source of water pollution.  And according to the Worldwatch Institute, at least 51% of global greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture.

The combined effect of crop-conversion inefficiencies, water usage, soil and tree loss, and waste has such a detrimental effect on our environment, the Union of Concerned Scientists lists meat-eating as the second-biggest environmental hazard facing the Earth.

And by 2050 it is estimated that we will need to increase our meat production by 70% to meet the world’s meat demands.

Our meat-conversion methods aren’t sustainable–it is too inefficient and wasteful to raise and sustain a living organism, to indirectly produce flesh.

Synthetic meat offers an alternative to produce flesh directly, free from a taxing conversion process.

Even back in 1931, Winston Churchill had the foresight to see this as a scientific inevitability: “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

But can synthetic meat really save the day?  How will it taste?  Can you actually see yourself making a switch to synthetic meat?  How will Thanksgiving meals feel the same if the turkey isn’t even real?

These are understandable concerns–growing up on animal-based meat is a cultural phenomenon most of us are used to, and it isn’t easy to switch.

To address these concerns, let’s take a closer look at the history and development of the patented discoveries surrounding synthetic-meat technology–a closer look reveals that synthetic meat only has the potential to have the look, feel, and taste of animal meat, but it will far surpass it.

The concept of in vitro meat came from NASA in 1995 from its effort to supply meat for astronauts on extended space journeys.  The FDA approved the process in 1995 and NASA began researching ways to produce it.

Dutch scientist Willem Frederik Van Eelen is credited with inventing a process for creating cultured meat on an industrial scale.  In December 1998 he filed for a patent on his discovery, WO9931222 entitled “Industrial Scale Production of Meat from In Vitro Cell Cultures.”

The patented discovery was the first of its kind.  In it, Van Eelen teaches a process of industrial-scale production of meat grown in vitro from anchor animal cells, in a manner that does not require de-boning and that is free of tendon and fat cells.  His goal was to teach a method of producing meat on an industrial scale that doesn’t require the production of animals, loss of life, and harmful growth hormones and antibiotics.

But the patented technology lacked one key ingredient–it failed to account for taste.  In his patent, Van Eelen taught avoiding the use of fat cells, but fat is what gives the meat its taste.

In Sept. 2004, inventor Jon Vein addressed the issue of taste and further developed the technology in his European patent EP 1789063 B1, entitled “Tissue Engineered Meat for Consumption and a Method for Producing Tissue Engineered Meat for Consumption.”

In it he teaches adding cartilage and fat cells to the muscle cells, to produce meat with more flavor.  He also teaches growing the cells around a three-dimensional support structure, to resemble different muscle tissues such as tenderloin, shank, chicken breast, drumsticks, lamb chops, fish fillet, and lobster tail.

But industrial-scale production of in vitro meat may still be problematic, because growing meat with a mix of fat and muscle cells and off of a support structure may be too imprecise for replicable, industrial-scale production.

Modern Meadow addressed this problem in the latest of patented technology surrounding the field–it has successfully applied 3D-printing technology to tissue and meat: 3D bioprinting.  Its patent application relating to meat has yet to be published (patent applications are published 18 months after filing), but Modern Meadow filed a similar patent application on March 28, 2013, WO2013149083 entitled “Engineered leather and methods of manufacture thereof,” which discloses a method of 3D printing leather.

With 3D bioprinting, we can isolate ingredients down to a molecular level and meld and organize the cells and stack them in layers.

3D bioprinting offers a precision that is arguably lacking with growing meat in vitro.  And with the right mix of ingredients, we can create almost anything.

Although there are more patentable discoveries yet to be uncovered to get there, 3D bioprinting offers an opportunity not only optimize taste by creating the perfect mixture of muscle and fat cells, but also meat off of the bone and bone marrow to enable the recreation of the tastiest part of meat–that which grows on the bone.

Perhaps most revolutionary with 3D bioprinting: we can create meat that is free from the limitations of the animal’s actual physiology.

If the filet is your favorite type of meat from a cow, why keep it limited to 6 oz?  Why not create a 36 oz filet with the most tender muscle cells, with fat cells to marbelize it, and have it grow on a bone to enhance its taste even further?

What is impossible for animal meat can now become a reality with synthetic meat–we can print meat that tastes better and gives us more of the type of meat we want.

Still further, we can print skin and and texture to enable the most creative chefs to dream masterpieces in meat presentations.

So if the taste of cultured meat can exceed what is possible with animal meat, what about the culture surrounding meat?  Doesn’t it bring families together and enhance collective appreciation knowing that an animal gave its life for the meal?

Well, this will take an adjustment in thinking.  Can you be satisfied that a turkey had to donate a part of itself (its cells), for you to enjoy your meal?

If you can, then you are one step closer to enjoying and appreciating what this revolutionary technology has to offer.  Synthetic meat will enable you to get more of the meat you want, without the detrimental costs to the animals, environment, and our limited natural resources.

I hope this article helps you think of synthetic meat from a different perspective, and that you’ll actually look forward to its development and integration into the market.  

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