Steak of the Art: The Fatal Flaws of In Vitro Meat

By Guest Blogger | April 24, 2012 10:00 am

meat

Christina Agapakis is a synthetic biologist and postdoctoral research fellow at UCLA who blogs about about biology, engineering, biological engineering, and biologically inspired engineering at Oscillator.

When you factor in the fertilizer needed to grow animal feed and the sheer volume of methane expelled by cows (mostly, though not entirely, from their mouths), a carnivore driving a Prius can contribute more to global warming than a vegan in a Hummer. Given the environmental toll of factory farming it’s easy to see why people get excited about the idea of meat grown in a lab, without fertilizer, feed corn, or burps.

In this vision of the future, our steaks are grown in vats rather than in cows, with layers of cow cells nurtured on complex machinery to create a cruelty-free, sustainable meat alternative. The technology involved is today used mainly to grow cells for pharmaceutical development, but that hasn’t stopped several groups from experimenting with “in vitro meat,” as it’s called, over the last decade. In fact, a team of tissue engineers led by professor Mark Post at Maastricht University in the Netherlands recently announced their goal to make the world’s first in vitro hamburger by October 2012. The price tag is expected to be €250,000 (over $330,000), but we’re assured that as the technology scales up to industrial levels over the next ten years, the cost will scale down to mass-market prices.

Whenever I hear about industrial scaling as a cure-all, my skeptic alarms start going off, because scaling is the deus ex machina of so many scientific proposals, often minimized by scientists (myself included) as simply an “engineering problem.” But when we’re talking about food and sustainability, that scaling is exactly what feeds a large and growing population. Scaling isn’t just an afterthought, it’s often the key factor that determines if a laboratory-proven technology becomes an environmentally and economically sustainable reality. Looking beyond the hype of “sustainable” and “cruelty-free” meat to the details of how cell culture works exposes just how difficult this scaling would be.

Cell culture is one of the most expensive and resource-intensive techniques in modern biology. Keeping the cells warm, healthy, well-fed, and free of contamination takes incredible labor and energy, even when scaled to the 10,000-liter vats that biotech companies use. In addition, even in those sophisticated vats, the three-dimensional techniques that would be required to grow actual steaks with a mix of muscle and fat have not been invented yet, though not for lack of trying. (This technology would primarily benefit our ability to make artificial organ replacements.) Add on top of that the fact that these three-dimensional wads of meat would have to be exercised regularly with stretching machinery, essentially elaborate meat gyms, and you can begin to understand the incredible challenge of scaling in vitro meat.

cell culture
Cell culture is hideously expensive, not to mention technically difficult.

Even beyond this mechanical engineering issue, when we consider the other raw materials, the nutrients that will feed and sustain these stem cells as they grow into our dinner, the large-scale sustainability of in vitro meat can be called into question. In fact, of all the fantastic claims of lab-grown meat, the most far-fetched given current technology is that in vitro meat will be cruelty-free. In vitro meat proposals imagine a “donor herd” of cows that will give some cells to make meat without having to be slaughtered, so yes, the first in vitro hamburger, if it is successfully unveiled this October, will be made of cells that started out as just a few cow muscle stem cells from a still-living cow. But the donor cells aren’t the only animal product needed to grow in vitro hamburgers; the growth medium that provides nutrients, vitamins, and growth hormones to the cells is currently made with a mixture of sugars and amino acids supplemented with fetal bovine serum—literally the blood of unborn cows.

Of course, many tissue engineers are trying to come up with cheaper and cruelty-free alternatives to fetal calf serum. Algae is currently a much-trumpeted replacement: Best-case-scenario analyses of the environmental impact of algae-fed cell culture estimate that in vitro meat will have 78-96% lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventional meat. Algae are remarkable organisms, and they are especially important because their photosynthetic efficiency, the rate at which they convert sunlight into sugars, is significantly higher than plants like corn. This efficiency allows for the production of the same amount of stuff in a much smaller area, with fewer inputs.

So why don’t we use algae to feed cows already? Why isn’t algae solving all of our problems? Well, this isn’t the first time that algae has been proposed as a solution to an environmental crisis in food production. In the 1940s and 1950s, as the population exploded and conventional agriculture didn’t seem like it could keep up, enormous research efforts went into scaling the production of algae as a food product, a high-protein green paste to feed to increasing number of hungry people around the world. A fascinating article by Warren Belasco in Technology and Culture traces the history, the promise (and hype), and the failures of this research, and provides valuable insights for the current attempts to “save the world” with algae.

Scaling, it turned out, killed these plans the last time we tried them. Scaling algae production in open ponds proved an enormous challenge, with the gains in efficiency fading as the controlled environment of the lab was traded for ponds where cells crowded and shaded each other while having to fight off infections and predators. At the same time as algae failed to deliver, the Green Revolution significantly improved yields of conventional crops, and algae was slowly transformed into a specialty product rather than the base of the food pyramid. Today, algae is used to produce extremely high-value health-food products, like omega-3 fatty acids and carotenoids, with the average market price for algae products at around $150 per pound of dry cells produced. Compared to the price of corn, which is about $0.09 per pound, or beef at $1.99 per pound, algae has a long way to go before it can play the role of cheap feedstock for in vitro meat production.

Grand technological fixes can look good if you don’t peer too close at their workings. But as should be clear once you examine the case of in vitro meat, the meat problem won’t really be solved with flashy tech, even if it could somehow displace factory farming on sheer economics. The real issue is the ever-growing demand for meat, and our unwillingness to eat less of it, regardless of the environmental cost.

Perhaps someday soon we will be able to outgrow our taste for flesh, not by producing it artificially or by genetically engineering people to be disgusted by meat (another far-out fix) but by changing the price of meat to reflect its true environmental cost.

So, with that in mind…$330,000 hamburger, anyone?

Meat image via Shutterstock, cell culture image via Shutterstock.

  • kirk

    How about a drug that makes me euphoric when I eat tofu? Other than weed which already does that to anything I eat.

  • Jay Fox

    Man will never outgrow the “taste for flesh,” as you call it. Proper nutrition requires the consumption of animal fats and proteins not found in other food stuffs. These materials also liberate certain nutritional components found in grain and vegetable foods that would otherwise not become available.

    The populations on this planet with the shortest lifespans are those who strive for a vegan diet. They also have the highest incidence of vitamin deficiencies.

    Even so-called herbivores like cows consume animal fats and proteins as insects and eggs on the grasses they eat. In feedlots, managers must provide this missing ingredient by giving the animals ground up animals as part of the feed. Otherwise, growth would be stunted. It may sound gross, but it’s done for a reason. Meat is required for proper growth and development.

    Having said all that, the amount of meat required is not great. For the average human, an amount equal to a small sardine, daily, would suffice.

  • http://www.shivasteveordog.wordpress.com Shiva Steve Ordog

    Making artificial meat is a worthless project. We should be concentrating on sustainable agriculture and doing away with industrial meat production. Plant based diets are provably healthier for our bodies and the environment.

  • rarcher

    long pig
    the only solution

  • Mikej77

    Take away point is most of human nutrition will be synthesized in the future.
    Not really important if it is considered “meat” or not.
    Protein, complex carbos, fats, supplements.
    This will save MASSIVE energy and be much safer.
    You will not be able to afford much if any real meat so you can have all you can afford just like you can have all the other goods and services you can afford like Justice and Health.
    Will you demand Meaticare?

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I’m more concerned about the fantastic amounts of antibiotics a cell culture without the usual immune system would require. It is already today a problem re diseases.

    @ SSO:

    The most healthy diets where people live longest seems to be the mediterranean and the japanese kitchens. Neither of those are exclusively plant or animal based. The latter diets makes people live shorter (AFAIK the statistics) and should be avoided if at all possible. Probably because we evolved to eat most anything.

    And todays agriculture is sustainable, despite increased population we manage about the same area. So when the global population is projected to start to go down in the end of the century, we are well positioned. We may even start to convert land back to woods, especially since urbanization proceeds.

    The climate problem isn’t so much food production as that everything we do produce greenhouse gases. If we want a stable climate we need to become more efficient over all.

  • steve

    “it’s easy to see why people get excited about the idea of meat grown in a lab”
    Really? I mean, unless you’re talking about integrating cacao tree transgenes into porcine cells to cultivate chocolate flavored bacon…. Actually, yeah, I guess I can see why people might excited about the idea.

    But the idea of algae as a livestock feed source sounds interesting – after all, fish accumulate DHA from algae, right? The economic issues notwithstanding though, its hard to imagine it wouldn’t impact taste, not to mention producing something far too reminiscent of soylent green.

  • IW

    “…the…problem won’t really be solved with flashy tech…”

    That’s what they said about reading the genome until people like Craig Venter came along and refused to be hide-bound by antiquated thinking and stuck-in-the-mud technology. Now we’re rapidly approaching an era where you will get your genome read at your doctor’s office, or buy a kit at Target and do it at home.

    You’re right, it won’t be fixed by people whining about it. It will be fixed when people, including synthetic biologists, start thinking outside the box. The only other element needed is an incentive, and climate change is just that.

  • Georg

    rarcher said:

    long pig
    the only solution

    This some kind of Soilent Green, I suppose?

    Seriously: switch to more pork/chicken/fish
    instead of beef, and You save the world!

  • Thomas

    We can always switch to eating insects to get our proteins with less environmental impact and ethical problems, and with less technological challenges than synthetic meat:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6GimGZz6a8

  • Redshift

    Western culture needs to eat more organ meat and other less desirable cuts, this will make each cow produce more human-consumable protein

  • Tami

    nice piece Christina!

  • Dave

    Life offers few joys, one of which is steak. Coming up with a more eviro-friendly steak is more likely to win my kind over than a thousand years of vegan-kvetching. If invitro meat can be produced, it could win the support of enough consumers to actually make a difference to the environment.

  • TRJ

    To Redshift. The organ meat and less desirable cuts are not wasted. Where do you think those “meat-by-products” in pet food come from?

  • Art

    Long-pig. It isn’t just the other white meat … it’s an end to unemployment.

    On one hand I tend to agree that in-vitro meat is something of a waste. Cattle produce meat already, and they do a might fine job of producing a very delicious cuts utilizing little more than grass and water.

    It isn’t correct to say we absolutely need meat. People can live quite well without any meat or animal products. Takes a bit of doing keeping things balanced, and many people would miss their meat, but it can, and is, done.

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  • Patrick

    While you control freaks dream about forcing the rest of us into your joyless utopia (eat your grass… or else) others will continue to innovate–in other words, give people what they want, but thought they could never have, at a reasonable cost.

    Same old story. You whine, others work.

  • Jeff

    Good article, but people who eat meat aren’t “carnivores.” A little surprising to see a biologist use that term to describe humans.

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  • Dr. Pill

    Dear Christina Agapakis. Saying something like “with that in mind…$330,000 hamburger, anyone?” is so irresponsible and misleading.

    I am sure that developing the first simple Advil pill also cost millions. So would it be fair back then to say “with that in mind…$2 million head ache pill anyone?”

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  • Oliver Lu

    “Pet food”? You mean like scrapple?

  • Oliver Lu

    Will happen as prices for meat keep rising, eating other parts of animals becomes normalized (for my part I can’t understand why people think dry/flavorless breast meat is the best part of turkey or chicken, and love my Vietnamese or Chinese beef tendon[s])…

  • Oliver Lu

    pigs aren’t great

    fewer pigs = less swine flu

    and seafood needs to be harvested sustainably and without all the antibiotics currently used by fish farms

    • http://www.facebook.com/chloe.p.halstead Chloë Halstead

      Well with birds you get bird flu and with cattle and sheep you get foot and mouth. Everything has a disease, we give animals diseases too. Your point is..well pointless.

      • Najeeb Shah

        nope , pigs are disgusting , its proven by science , and need way more cleaning before they can be eaten . i dont remember having foot and mouth or bird flu , but swine flu is something i hear about every other time on the news

  • Oliver Lu

    are you volunteering

  • Oliver Lu

    good post

  • Bregan Miles

    The concept of In Vitro is a great idea. However it does not fix the
    problem- people eat too much meat. Yes, it helps the environment,
    they can make it healthier, blah,blah. Plant based diets are much
    healthier and better for the body. With such complex digestive
    systems it is abusive to force the body to digest that much meat.
    This is a study that is using too much funding, and most likely not
    going to get very far. Bottom line; people need to think about what
    they’re ingesting.

    • Najeeb Shah

      utterly wrong you are

  • Luke Lloyd

    I don’t think you quite got this part of the article. She is referring to the burger reflecting its environmental cost-not the manufacturing costs. The point is to see prices that are representative of the damage done to the environment rather than the savings provided through harming the environment, make sense?

  • Luke Bellamy

    Probably true, but try convincing every meat eater out there. This is a brilliant compromise.

    • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

      Not really.

      A better compromise is to get people to eat a lot less meat, and humanely, sustainably raised meat. Eventually, over time, we can also get people to become more receptive to eating no meat at all—or at least only meat that is sustainably raised.

      We can’t keep relying on technology as an end run around bad human behavior.

      • Luke Bellamy

        No… we have no choice but to rely on technology. We can’t go back to the dark ages… holding this opinion doesn’t do the environmental movement any favours.

        I don’t disagree it would be better, but what you propose is unrealistic unfortunately. We have to move with the times and although there may be place for what you propose, it is a longer and harder fight than settling for in-vitro meat which all-in-all isn’t that bad.

  • Najeeb Shah

    Lol vegetarians need to get a life , as well as peta and other vegetarian idiots. cutting up an animal for food isnt cruelty , its meant to be our food since centuries .
    + we wont touch synthetic meat ( actually not synthetic , they didn’t synthesize it , its still mean grown from a cows stem cells ) , we will keep on eating natural eat the way nature wants us to . and you vegetarians need to stop telling us what to do

  • Adam Shriver

    The conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises. What you should conclude from the points raised above is “it’s very difficult” rather than “it’s fatally flawed and won’t solve the real issue.”

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    Tell me, do you eat humanely raised meat? Meat from farms that are certified humane? Do you eat less meat? Have you cut down on the amount of beef you eat—perhaps in favor of sustainable fish?

    These are all options now where you don’t have to give up your steak, but still make a difference.

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    Good point. We’re omnivores.

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    Very little of what you just wrote is corroborated by fact.

  • Economist2011

    of course it’s expensive. It’s ONLY AT THE RESEARCH STAGE.

  • David Jackson

    someone (qualified) should at least scan your article. The people reading trip up if you don’t. They get discouraged and put it down. First sentence: blogs about about biology…

  • Gaia

    We can’t keep relying on technology as an end run around bad human behavior.

    says shelley powers. And I agree. But how are ‘we’ going to change bad human behavior to good? Religion has been trying for centuries. I sometimes despair of humans as a species. On bad days I think of ‘us’ as a failed species, and that makes me very sad.

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