Editorial: Food for thought

At €2,50,000, the burger produced recently using meat cultured in a lab is probably the world’s most expensive sandwich. But it marks a major milestone in the long pursuit by a few scientists to grow meat in vitro. The small piece of meat containing 20,000 strips of muscle tissue, each one mm thick by 2.5 cm long, is a proof of concept that culturing meat in a petri dish is indeed scientifically possible. The starting material for the lab-made meat is a kind of adult stem cell harvested from the muscles of cattle. Unlike embryonic stem cells that need to be coaxed to become cells of a certain kind, adult stem cells are preprogrammed to produce specialised cells — muscle cells in this case. But the downside is that adult stem cells cannot replicate endlessly like their embryonic counterparts. Having proved the science, commercial production of meat would become a reality only if scientists solve a few major problems. The most challenging is finding a truly cheap, efficient, animal-free media in which the stem cells can be grown. The foetal calf serum media currently used come from slaughtered animals. Aside from the source of the nutrient broth, the fact that it also contains antibiotics and anti-fungal agents almost rules out this serum as a likely candidate when mass production becomes a reality. Animal-free media are commercially available, but are equally expensive. As a December 2010 paper in Nature points out, the nutrient media make up for about 90 per cent of the material cost of in vitro meat.

It may take a few decades for the technology to reach the stage where meat grown in customised bioreactors becomes available in supermarkets at a competitive price. But there is a clear need for such meat. Besides saving more than 42 million cattle from being butchered every year in the U.S. alone, the huge environmental gain that would accrue cannot be dismissed lightly. According to a 2006 Food and Agriculture Organization report, livestock raised specifically for meat release 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions; about 30 per cent of land is used for grazing and growing animal feed. The quantum of antibiotics used in livestock is one of the main reasons for the rise in drug-resistant bacteria. It would also minimise many viral strains from jumping from animals to humans. But logic alone will not help the cause. There is a need to make the product quite comparable in taste, texture and nutrient content to find more takers. Such hurdles can be overcome only if sustained funding is available. With the exception of the Dutch government, no country or major organisation has shown any inclination to fund this research. Hopefully, the latest demonstration may change all that.

Published in The Hindu on August 19, 2013