Sunday, November 7, 2021

The meat of the future

Here's a glimpse of the future of meat: We'll make it from stem cells in giant "bioreactors" like you might find in a modern pharmaceutical factory. The cells come from a contented pig that lives in the outer courtyard of a local meat factory, where technicians occasionally poke it with a biopsy needle, and meat lovers, with clear consciences, pat it as they go to buy a piece grown right there.

That vision, more or less, is enriched in an article published in Trends in Biotechnology, by the philosopher Cor van der Weele and the biotechnologist Johannes Tramper, a pair of researchers from Wageningen University. Both describe themselves as "modest" meat eaters, concerned about what modern meat production does to the planet and the animals themselves.

The answer to both concerns, they suggest, and the way to create an alternative that meat eaters really take into account, could be to artificially grow meat locally and on a small scale. Rather than raising pigs on factory farms and slaughtering them in slaughterhouses, van der Weele explained in an email, "pigs can act as live cell banks, while keeping us in contact with animals as sources of our food."

In short, we could keep our pork - or our cow or our chicken - and consume it too.

With global demand growing inexorably, everyone from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to Bill Gates has declared meat unsustainable, at least in the way it is produced today.

Gates has invested in Beyond Meat, a start-up that has made fake chicken strips good enough to fool New York Times food critic Mark Bittman (the strips were wrapped in a burrito). Beyond Meat makes its product from soy and amaranth, with an exclusive texturing process that achieves the fibrous texture of chicken breast.

Since we've turned animals into meat-making machines, Bitman and others argue, why don't we just go further, making animal meat with machines and giving real animals a break?

Another Columbia start-up, Modern Meadow, is in fact already trying to produce meat from animal muscle cells, using tissue engineering techniques originally developed to regenerate human organs.

In addition to being an alternative to raising livestock on Earth, Modern Meadow sees an opportunity for its products on long-duration space missions (which have no room for livestock). "Cultured meat can confidently go where no meat has gone before," jokes the company's website. Modern Meadow is partially funded by Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin is backing a different cause. In a video from last year, Brin explains why the world's first cultured meat burger was funded, produced from stem cells and distributed last summer by Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands. "Sometimes a new technology comes along and has the ability to transform the way we see the world," says Brin, wearing Google glasses as he looks at the camera. The burger cost him more than $ 300,000. The mouthfeel was good, but the taste needs to be improved, "Post says. He has yet to figure out how to add fat to the burger.

Post's long-term goal is to develop the cultured steak, but that's going to be much, much more difficult than producing a lot of muscle fiber and shaping it into a hamburger shape. "You need to build a complex tissue with structures like blood vessels to nourish the inner layers," Post wrote by email from Japan, where he was on his way to a conference on 3-D printing. "It is required to simultaneously mount different cells and biomaterials in the correct configuration."

Some critics of factory farming operations are intensely skeptical that cultured meat is the solution. Food activist Danielle Nierenberg believes the "huge gross factor" will limit the future of "petri dish meat."

Are people who didn't eat tofu a few years ago now eat lab-made meat? She asks. A better future, Nierenberg and others argue, would to some degree require going back in time, eating less meat, as before, and producing it less intensively, on farms rather than feedlots.

The world has a serious problem by 2050. On the one hand, it will be necessary to produce 50 percent more food to feed the nearly 10 billion people who will inhabit the planet, but at the same time, the emissions of gases from The greenhouse effect that is generated when producing them should be reduced by two thirds.

The above according to the latest World Resources Institute (WRI) report. The institution notes that the production of meat and dairy products uses 83 percent of agricultural land and produces 60 percent of emissions from agriculture.

The great challenge is to produce those extra foods that are required without creating new farmland. Failure to do so will result in the world running out of forests in that period, according to the report.

To solve that problem, the report notes that 2 billion people currently living in countries like the United States, Russia and Brazil, among others, should reduce their current consumption of beef by 40 percent. 

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