Can lab-grown meat reduce food insecurity?

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Mark Post, professor of physiology from Netherlands’ Maastricht University, developed the first-ever in vitro hamburger with a team of colleagues in their university’s lab. This video highlights the potential of lab-grown meat to reduce food insecurity while lowering the environmental impact of agricultural production. While factoring in regulations, Post envisions that his team may eventually scale up production of lab-grown meat from a small scale currently with the use of stem cells from cows to potentially a large, industrial volume.

Here’s a transcript of the video

I am Mark Post. I am a professor of physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. We took a sample from a cow that has stem cells. You can grow those stem cells. They are specific for muscle. They can only make muscle tissue. So we expanded them. We let them grow, and they are designated muscle stem cells. They start to make muscle tissue basically outside of the cow in the lab. And we used that capacity to grow the hamburger. We have shown that we can do this, but now we have to show that it can be efficient and cost-effective. And for both, we actually need to scale up production from the very small scale that we’re doing right now to a huge industrial scale in 2,500-liter fermenters. The technology that we now have developed to culture these cells allow us to do that scaling, but we still have to show that we can do that.

The resources are primarily energy and feedstock. So food for the cells. The cells need to eat as well. The water and the land I’m not so concerned about because this inevitably is going to lead to much less land usage and much less water usage. And we can also implement a recycling system. But the feedstock is really the important question, and that depends on scaling up and making the whole process more efficient. And the energy is something that may be neutral, but even if it’s neutral, it will not be associated with the methane exhaust of cows. So it will still be better for the environment and sort of the most pessimistic estimate is that it will be neutral, and the most optimistic estimate is that we have a 60 percent reduction in energy expenditure.

The feedstock is going to be glucose and amino acids, vitamins, minerals. But I think the primary feedstock is glucose. And what we’re worried about at least is the glucose and amino acids. They have to come from another source. Sugar beets, algae, what have you. Well, I think, you know, important is thinking about those feedstock sources. You know, should this come from a vegetable origin or from an algae origin. How are you going to optimize that at a large scale? And also the whole process technology around it, that’s really going to be important. And it has to be in the food space, but at the same time it’s not traditional food company technology. It’s mostly in the biotech sphere making antibodies, making hybridomas for protein production. So it’s a little bit different. And there we have to sort of combine expertise. The next step is to start a company and really start scaling up.

The whole protein dilemma has multiple solutions, and this solution would allow us to keep on eating meat without all the negative consequences. None of the other solutions would allow us to do that, although they would allow us easily to survive and to be happy and to have food security. But they will not really produce the meat. So I think that’s where it stands out. Obviously, you know, in the long run or in the intermediate sort of term, we need to regulate this. So it needs to be approved as a food and initially is going to be expensive, so it has to slowly develop into a staple food. I see that over a period of at least 10 years. You can do pretty much every species that has these stem cells in their muscle. And so we have tried pork and mouse and cow.

Other people have tried fish. Other people are working on chicken. Yes, they all can be done. I think for each of those species, the reason for doing this might be slightly different. For cow, it’s mostly environmental and food security. For chicken, it might be more towards animal welfare. For fish it might be more biodiversity. This is a great opportunity to study, investigate a radical new technology that will sort of recreate the way we think about a very traditional food that we have. And that has all sorts of scientific implications both in acceptance, in the food science part, in the food technology part, in the meat science part. So you know, if nothing else, it’s also a great vehicle for addressing scientific questions.

If you see this as a model of muscle production, which is very contained, where you can change the variables in a very controlled manner. You could address all sorts of questions that you now cannot address because you are working with a natural product. I have been doing tissue engineering for medical applications, and this sort of came along my path. And it’s also tissue engineering. The technology is pretty much the same. But I thought, you know, the social impact of this could be so much larger that I really got into it.

Learn more about cultured meat in this article by Marta Zaraska on FutureFood2050.com.

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