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

Ok for KFC: Scientists hope to be able to grow an entire chicken within five years. © Eat Just

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.

You Decide

  1. Is it realistic to ask people to give up their favourite foods for the sake of the planet?
  2. Many animals would not exist if humans did not raise them for consumption. Should they be grateful to us?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you have been invited to create a new animal to populate the countryside instead of sheep and cows. Draw a picture of it with a key explaining the advantages of its various features.
  2. Imagine that you are the owner of the first restaurant to serve chicken bites. Write a script for a TV advertisement to persuade people to come and try them.

Some People Say...

“We're all of us guinea pigs in the laboratory of God. Humanity is just a work in progress.”

Tennessee Williams (1911 - 1983), American playwright

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that we raise and eat animals on a vast and unsustainable scale. Of all the mammals on Earth, 60% are livestock, 36% are humans and only 4% are wild. An estimated 77 billion land animals are killed each year for food – of which over 60 billion are chickens, 3 billion are ducks and 1.5 billion are pigs. We eat 300 million cows, and each cow being raised for consumption can produce up to 200 kg of methane a year.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether laboratory meat will be acceptable to vegans. As people who want to improve the lot of animals, vegans should support an industry which would result in fewer creatures being raised in cruel conditions and slaughtered. But veganism means avoiding the use of animal products – which strictly speaking includes laboratory meat created with animal cells.

Word Watch

Bioreactors
Containers in which biological reactions can take place.
Eat Just
A Californian company founded in 2011. Its other products include a type of mayonnaise made with peas rather than eggs.
Singapore
As an island nation which imports 90% of its food, Singapore sees laboratory meat as something which would make it less dependent on other countries.
Stem cells
Cells that have not yet taken on a specific function within the body, like muscle or bone or nerve. They multiply easily and rapidly, whereas fully developed muscle cells do not.
Bovine
Coming from or connected to cattle. It can also mean stupid – the implication being that cows are not very clever. However, they are now believed to be more intelligent than most people realise.
Serum
The liquid component of blood. It includes all the proteins which are not used in blood clotting.
Good Food Institute
An organisation which promotes plant-based alternatives to meat, eggs and dairy products.

Subjects

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