• Reading Level 5
Science | Geography | PSHE | Relationships and health

‘Hi, honey – your dinner’s in the test tube’

Should we welcome laboratory-grown meat? Its advocates say it will help the environment and save animals from needless suffering. But first, producers have to overcome the “yuck factor”. On a sunny spring morning, the farmer pulls on his white coat and steps into the farmyard. He gazes at his empty fields and pauses to enjoy the peaceful scene: no grunting of pigs, no lowing of cattle, no cackling of hens. With a sigh of contentment, he walks across to the sterilised shed to see how the meat in his bioreactors is doing. This, if food-industry experts are right, is how agricultural life might look in 2040. And an announcement made this week has brought that vision much closer to reality. An American company called Eat Just told the world that its “chicken bites”, produced in a laboratory, had passed a safety review by the Singapore Food Agency. They can now be sold in shops and restaurants. “My hope,” said the company’s head, Josh Tetrick, “is this leads to a world in the next handful of years where the majority of meat doesn’t require killing a single animal or tearing down a single tree.” Production of the chicken bites begins with stem cells taken from live chickens. These are cultivated using foetal bovine serum to nourish them – though the company says it plans to use a plant-based serum in future. They are then put into a 1,200-litre bioreactor to encourage their growth. The stem cells fuse to become long muscle fibres, which are “exercised” by stretching and electric pulses until they are large enough to be used for making the bites. Tetrick compares the whole process to brewing beer. To start with, the bites will be sold in a single restaurant, where they will cost as much as the most expensive natural chicken on the menu. Tetrick then hopes to make them available to other restaurants and shops, and bring the price down by increasing the scale of production. “If we want to serve the entire country of Singapore, and eventually bring it to elsewhere in the world, we need to move to 10,000-litre or 50,000-litre-plus bioreactors.” The breakthrough will be welcomed by those who worry about the environmental impact of animals bred for food, and the suffering they undergo. The methane produced by cows is a major cause of global warming, and huge areas of the Amazon rainforest have been cut down to provide pasture for them or to grow soya beans to feed chickens. Around the world, about 160 million chickens are slaughtered every day, as well as four million pigs. A major challenge for cell-meat producers is to overcome people’s instinctive dislike of artificial food – what experts call “the yuck factor”. It is thought that young consumers will be more willing to try it than older ones. Eat Just is not the only company pinning its hopes on laboratory meat. In Israel, Supermeat.com has just begun free public tastings of “crispy cultured chicken”. In the US, Memphis Meats has attracted investment from two of the world’s biggest conventional meat producers. In the words of a spokesman for America’s Good Food Institute: “A new space race for the future of food is underway.” Should we welcome laboratory-grown meat? Portion caution Some say, yes: this is the answer to many of our problems. We would use much fewer of the world’s resources if we did not have to grow food for animals to eat, or provide them with water. Without the methane from cows, global warming could be brought under control. And we could enjoy our meals without guilt, knowing that no suffering was caused to animals in their production. Others argue that it is always better to do things the natural way. Other creatures do not think twice about killing for food, so neither should we. The livelihoods of around one billion poor people depend on keeping animals. Organic farmers say that to produce food sustainably, fields cannot just be given over to crops: they need to be rotated with sheep and cows, whose manure fertilises them. KeywordsSingapore - A country in South East Asia, with a population of just under six million.

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