Dutch physiologist Mark Post sees lab-grown products as the ultimate solution to feeding the world’s appetite for healthier, sustainable “real” meat.
Mouth-watering smells of frying meat wafted around a dimly lit studio in East London on Aug. 5, 2013. The cultured beef patty cooked and tasted at the media event there that day, which famously cost more than $330,000 to produce in a cluttered, unassuming lab at the Netherlands’ Maastricht University, was pronounced a tad dry but not bad. Media around the world were abuzz with news about this first-ever in vitro burger and its creator, physiology professor Mark Post and his team.
It’s a very simple technology, so it can be easily transplanted. You don’t need a Ph.D. to grow cultured meat. In fact, it would be feasible to do it at home.”
But glitz and glamour isn’t what motivates Post to do the hard and (in his words) energy-consuming work of transforming the way meat is produced. What makes it all worthwhile, he says, is the potential that lab-grown meat holds for reducing food insecurity and for lowering the environmental impact of agricultural production by using much less land and water to get our steaks and burgers. Studies show that growing 1 ton of cultured beef would require 376 times fewer hectares than does producing 1 ton of conventional beef, and water use could be cut by 90 percent. What’s more, cultured meat production could ultimately reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from conventional meat production by as much as 80 to 95 percent.
In fact, Post believes that by 2050, cultured meat production will have already cut in half the amount of resources needed for producing beef. “It’s ambitious, but achievable,” he says. “After all, it [only] took us about three years to get the technology from zero to something that you can eat.”
In addition to its environmental benefits, says Post, cultured meat may actually be better for our health. Studies show that consumption of conventional meat can elevate blood cholesterol and raise the risk of colorectal cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Cultured meat, on the other hand, could be made to contain optimum levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and to have lower levels of cholesterol and heme iron content (according to research, higher intakes of heme iron are associated with stomach cancer, for example). Food poisoning incidences would likely decline too, since cultured meat would be sterile, considerably cutting the risks of salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli infections.
Post’s initial involvement in the cultured meat project came about almost by chance. A few years back, a Dutch visionary named Willem van Eelen assembled a team of scientists and secured a grant of more than US$2 million from the Dutch government to produce lab-grown meat. “When one of the project leaders got sick, I was asked to take over her position, even though back then I worked mostly on engineering blood vessels,” Post recalls. “But I knew right away that cultured meat was a great idea.”
In 2013, years of research culminated in the London burger. It took Post and his co-workers three months to grow the 85 grams of meat required for the patty. First, through biopsy, they obtained myosatellite cells—a type of stem cells responsible for muscle regeneration after injury—from a piece of Belgian beef. Then the cells were placed in a nutrient medium in petri dishes. For seven to eight weeks, the cells proliferated, growing and self-organizing into donut-shaped muscle fibers, each barely 1 mm in diameter. Next, the muscles matured and started producing abundant protein. Three weeks later they were ready for harvest.
A staggering 10,000 muscle strips were needed to make that one burger, a total of 40 billion cells. “We added egg white and bread crumbs to it, just like in a regular hamburger,” Post says. “But we did have to color the muscle strips with red beet juice and saffron” because the cultured beef lacked myoglobin, which makes conventional meat look red.
Commercial meat factories on the way
Although no commercial meat factories have yet opened, it’s just a matter of time, says Post. In the United States, New York-based Modern Meadow is developing cultured “steak chips”—something between a potato chip and a beef jerky that would be nutritionally superior to both. Post, meanwhile, is working on a business plan to start a company later in 2015. “I had a lot of invitations from venture capitalists, so I’m pretty confident we can get it funded,” he says.
Post says he also imagines commercial cultured meat “factories” opening up in developing countries in the near future, perhaps even in 10 years. “In essence, it’s a very simple technology, so it can be easily transplanted,” he says. “You don’t need a Ph.D. to grow cultured meat. In fact, it would be feasible to do it at home.”
Before cultured meat can become easily accessible, however, Post says several challenges will need to be overcome. For starters, he has to find a much cheaper growth medium, one that wouldn’t be made of fetal bovine serum (from unborn cows). He is also working on the fat tissue and the protein composition of cultured meat—myoglobin in particular, which is important for the iron content and the red color of beef. And last but not least, Post is trying to scale up production by developing special tanks for growing the cells.
Creating cultured steaks, chops and other whole pieces of meat is a possibility for the distant future, but Post believes that in five to seven years consumers will be able to find cultured ground meat products on the shelves of high-end stores in places like Dubai or Silicon Valley in the United States. Such meats could be produced locally or in the Netherlands and would cost around $30 to $45 per pound, says Post, and should taste the same as a conventional high-quality burger.
“I would prefer to sell it to McDonald’s, of course, but it’s not realistic in a short time frame,” he says.