Is Cultured Meat Ready for the Market?

Should scientists be able to thoroughly replicate all the bits and pieces of a burger patty, we might have to worry less about world hunger and enjoy the food that’s on our plates.

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By Rachel Chuong

Many of us have probably read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma in English class to understand the roots of the foods on our dinner plate. Outside of class readings, however, we rarely think about what goes into our meat. Our brains only focus on eating the burger in front of us, not the antibiotics slipped into the cow or the machinery that flips cows upside-down while they helplessly scream.

The human population has grown exponentially over the last few centuries and continues to grow rapidly. Humanity may soon have to consider whether we have enough resources to support all humans and whether climate change or poor agricultural techniques will mark our own Earth’s demise. Some countries have reached a demographic transition stage, where the consumption and demand for meat have drastically increased. Demographic transition is broken down into four parts, the first of which has high numbers of deaths and births. As the death rate drops, the population slowly edges toward exponential growth—the phase many countries are entering right now. Meat production in Asia has increased 15-fold since 1961, meaning that resources used in meat production like water and hay will continue being used up at staggering rates unless alternative meats that use fewer resources are introduced.

Additionally, cattle farming is harmful not only to the environment but also to itself. Large amounts of cow manure produced by Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) can contaminate water, poison cows, and lead to intestinal damage and cholera in humans. The environment and our population are at stake, but there is a solution.

Scientists have created cultured meat, which is meat grown from cells in a laboratory. The process of creating in-vitro meat takes a cow’s muscle fibers and incubates them in blood that is designed to mimic the conditions in a cow’s body. That muscle fiber is broken down into individual fat and muscle cells and continues to duplicate until enough muscle tissue is formed for a burger patty. This process of creating in-vitro meat requires both time and precision, with processes like oxygen diffusion across cell membranes in vitro requiring complex machinery. Additionally, meat created in-vitro has difficulty matching the nutritional value of natural burgers, with micronutrients like zinc and copper needing to be artificially added. Despite these downsides, the relatively little emissions resulting from creating in-vitro meat still allow it to be an attractive experimental process that scientists are willing to contribute time and money for.

However, the patty itself has an enormous price tag. The first lab-grown burger patty cost around $300,000, a price that no consumer is willing to pay, even for the meat’s environmental upsides. In-vitro meat is severely underfunded, making mass production difficult.

Additionally, animals other than cows can have their meat cultured. For example, cultured fish meat can counteract overfishing, a problem that leads to smaller harvests and food security issues, and prevent countries that depend on fishing from suffering severe economic consequences. In-vitro fish meat can be used similarly to in-vitro cow meat, taking the form of fillets and fish sticks rather than burgers. Like its cow counterpart, the process of creating in-vitro fish meat lacks efficiency, with one lab cultivating only 10 fillets in two months. In that case, fillets would have to be made at least a year beforehand in order to truly make marketing in-vitro fish meat effective.

Soruwat Kittibanthorn, a design student, devised an alternative method of “culturing” meat. As part of his master’s degree project, he converted chicken feathers into an edible product using a chemical process to heat and cool the feathers with chemicals that broke keratin’s bonds and formed a protein-rich meat substitute once it came out of the freezer. He used keratinase, an enzyme capable of breaking the bonds in keratin, to make the feather digestible, and another process called acid hydrolysis to further cleave keratin molecules. This, along with water, allows the “meat” to be solidified into its desired shape. Making this meat substitute is not the only project Kittibanthorn has undertaken: he also managed to make carb-free pasta and wraps and protein bar biscuits from feathers—new takes on nutrition in the form of food substitutes.

We currently are not ready to start placing meat created in-vitro onto our shelves because of its high price, low efficiency, and demand for great precision. However, the small projects that involve creating sustainable meat serve as proof of concepts that can be improved on in the future. Should scientists be able to thoroughly replicate all the bits and pieces of a burger patty in the lab, we all might be able to forget the guilt of harming our own planet.