The brave new world of meat alternatives

Labmeat

Biotechnologist Isha Datar envisions menus and meat cases stocked with tasty lab-made options.

In 2006, 18-year-old Canadian college student Isha Datar turned in a homework assignment on advances in tissue engineering that she thought could be applied to lab-made meat. Intrigued by the possibilities, she also sent her paper to the founder of New Harvest, a nonprofit organization that promotes the research and development of alternatives to conventionally produced meat.

New Harvest leader Jason Matheny was equally intrigued by the University of Alberta student’s ideas and emailed the paper to the scientists she had cited, who thrilled the young cell and molecular biology major by sending her their constructive comments about her work.

“I was blown away,” says 26-year-old Datar, now executive director of Washington, D.C.-based New Harvest. “In certain academic circles, your opinion matters more depending on what university you go to, or who your supervisor is, or how well-known the institution is. But the field of cultured meat is totally open-minded and accepting. They didn’t ask how old I was. They didn’t ask what gender I was, or anything.”

That spirit of adventure still drives cultured meat research, says Datar, who points to the work of Mark Post, the Maastricht University scientist behind the first in vitro burger produced in a lab from cultured muscle tissue of cow origin. Today Post, a New Harvest board member, is leading a team of 20 researchers on a two-year quest to create a better lab-grown manmade meat hamburger, an effort that is being funded by Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.

“Mark Post’s latest effort allows for twice the amount of time and seven times as many people working on it as the first burger,” says Datar. “It’s really a push in the right direction.”

In fact, within the next two or three decades, Datar predicts that the mass production of cultured meat will likely mirror today’s beer industry. Just as a wide range of people and companies create beer—giant breweries, microbreweries, brew pubs and do-it-yourself home brewers—the future of meat production will likely be just as diversified.

“Imagine what a brewery looks like: stainless steel tanks and very industrial,” says Datar. “Those are like bioreactors for cultured meat, which would also be produced in stainless steel tanks that house biological reactions, with temperature controls and various different parameters.”

Beefing up research

The possibilities for economically competitive alternatives to conventionally produced meat inspire Datar, who has a master’s degree in biotechnology. She worked in policy and public affairs at GlaxoSmithKline before joining New Harvest to advocate for meat alternatives produced in vitro, in a cell culture rather than from an animal. The science and policy behind meat production has fascinated her since her undergraduate years, she says.

“To me, meat production is so wildly inefficient. We feed a cow 7 kilograms of food to get 1 kilogram of beef, not to mention deforestation and that cows are some of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters,” says Datar, who says she eats less meat these days for environmental reasons. “The meat industry is so huge, but not yet recognized for being a huge problem for the environment.

“Cultured meat simultaneously addresses [these and] some other problems,” she adds, such as eliminating bacterial contamination as a public health problem.

A culture of transparency

Datar has traded hands-on cultured meat research work for her role as a communicator about meat innovations, which suits her skill set better, she says. At New Harvest, her team of volunteers reviews and summarizes research journal articles and scientific papers for a non-science audience.

Transparency is a huge part of food science now. It wasn’t as important in the past.”
—Isha Datar

“I can interpret the research to more understandable terms, often leading to a stimulating conversation about cultured meat,” she says. “At New Harvest, we are also focused on transparency. Ours is more of a science-based perspective rather than a marketing attitude.”

In fact, the media spectacle that surrounded the first lab-grown burger was a welcome sight, says Datar, who attended the 2013 London press conference and tasting. “Transparency is a huge part of food science now. It wasn’t as important in the past,” she says, adding that open communication with the public is an ideal way to pre-empt backlash like that associated with genetically modified foods.

“GMOs were approved in the U.S. in 1994. The first ‘Right to Know’ campaign was in 2003,” she says. “Ten years had passed with people consuming food without anyone asking questions or knowing what was happening. There was no labeling. The general public was not aware of what food science was doing.

“That may have been the standard practice back then, but it has really changed since,” she adds. “People want to know more about their food because, with the Internet, they now have the means to know.”

Mass-produced synthetic meat?

IshaDatarPhoto
Isha Datar

Looking ahead, Datar thinks that ultimately consumers will be able to choose from a “meat case” of cultured meat at the supermarket.

“If I look at how dairy alternatives have exploded to the grocery store and to Starbucks, where soy milk, almond milk, all kinds of milk and dairy alternatives are sold side by side with cow milk, I don’t see why meat alternatives won’t have the same pathway,” she says. “Already, meat alternatives such as the veggie burger appear on menus next to other burger options. I see no reason why cultured meat won’t be offered side by side with real meats at all kinds of restaurants. The goal for this meat is to taste identical to real meat.”

And how does Datar think the cultured meat industry will get consumers past the “yuck factor?” Education will hold the key, she says. “There are things we already eat, such as non-dairy products, and people enjoy them,” she says. “And when you learn about factory farming, animal welfare, the environmental impacts of meat, I think there will be plenty of people who are waiting to move toward cultured meat when it becomes available.”

Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist and writer based in Maryland. She reports on food, the environment and sustainable business for publications such as Slate, Scientific American, Nature, Yale e360, and The Guardian. She is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

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