The current large-scale methods of animal agriculture are so brutal and inefficient that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has offered a one million dollar reward to the first scientist that can produce in vitro meat, a term that describes meat that is grown externally from cells taken from a live animal.1 PETA hopes to end animal suffering by providing an alternative to factory-farmed meat that does not require the slaughter and cruelty inherent in the current factory farm system of meat production. Especially with the rapid advances being made in the fields of tissue and cellular engineering, it is important to explore the future of in vitro meat as an alternative to traditional animal slaughter. In vitro meat, also called cultured meat, is essentially meat that is grown from animal stem cells without animal slaughter. The mission to develop in vitro meat burgeoned out of the inefficiency, lack of sanitation, animal cruelty, and mismanagement of commercial factory farms. The huge amounts of waste generated on these farms contribute significant amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, spurring climate change.2 Scientists all over the world are developing the cruelty-free meat, with a fair amount of success. Considering that in the next forty years, the demand for meat across the globe is expected to rise by an astonishing 60%, the need for in vitro meat is urgent.3 In vitro meat could very well be a reality within the year, which can open the door to a brighter, cleaner, and more environmentally friendly future for the entire planet.
In vitro meat production may seem impossible; however, the mechanics behind it are currently utilized in many other fields, such as stem cell research.2 There are a few different production methods for cultured meat. One method is the scaffold-based technique, in which skeletal muscle cells are attached to a structuring agent, such as a collagen mesh, and then suffused with a medium in a bioreactor. The second technique is the self-organizing method, in which muscle tissue is generated from other, preexisting tissue. The scaffold-based technique is best for more unstructured meat, such as hamburger, while the self-organizing technique is better for products such as steak.4 Different techniques are required to produce different textures of meat product. The activity of the living animal alters the texture of the resultant meat due to varying amounts of lactic acid in the muscle tissue.5 Replicating this effect with externally grown animal tissue in the laboratory is quite difficult.
Another downside for cultured meat is the expense. Mark Post, a Dutch scientist at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, has promised laboratory-grown hamburger by October 2012; however, the hamburger will cost over a quarter of a million dollars to produce. Dr. Post uses stem cells from cows as the raw material for the cultured meat. After multiplying the stem cells, he allows them to grow into muscle cells. He produces a realistic meat texture by allowing the muscle cells to stretch and bend on a scaffolding of Velcro and then combining them with separately grown adipose tissue to achieve the characteristic level of meat juiciness.6 Meat texture is vitally important to the public acceptance of in vitro meat as an alternative to traditional meat that comes from animal slaughter.
Despite the difficulties of meat production, the final product has many worthwhile benefits. A recent study from Oxford University analyzed the energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and water use of many different types of meat. The meats analyzed included beef, sheep, pork, poultry, and cultured meat. The study demonstrated that cultured meat had lower energy use than all of the meats except poultry, and significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and water use than all four other meat sources.7 In addition to notorious production inefficiency, animal agriculture on such a large scale has been shown to produce antibiotic-resistant pathogens that can infect humans. Upon sequencing the genomes of several different clonal complexes of the pathogenic bacterium Staphylococcus aureus and constructing phylogenies, researchers found that modern methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) most likely originated in humans as methicillin-susceptible S. aureus (MSSA). The pathogen then jumped from humans to livestock, where it underwent a series of mutations, likely due to strong selection pressure for resistance to the suite of antibiotics that factory farmers regularly pump into the animals, which conferred antibiotic resistance unto an already troublesome bacterium.8 Animals are inundated with antibiotics because the incredibly close quarters of large-scale agriculture facilities can lead to heinous infections; farmers preemptively counteract the potential loss of profit by using a plethora of antibiotics on all animals, instead of only those that are actually infected.9 The atrocious treatment of factory farm animals, combined with the rampant use of preventative antibiotics, make factory farming the epitome of animal cruelty as well as a public health concern. Also, given that about 30% of viable land is used for animal husbandry and only 15% of the nutrients animals eat eventually reach the consumer in the form of meat, the current form of large-scale agriculture is also inefficient and unsustainable.6 For these reasons, cultured meat is necessary to revolutionize, and possibly replace, the factory farms of the world.
PETA’s decision to offer a one million dollar award could very well displace factory farming altogether and thus vastly reduce the cruelty and brutality that farm animals must suffer every day.1 The contest winner must produce commercially viable in vitro chicken meat that is indistinguishable from the real thing. While PETA maintains that being a vegetarian is the best option to reduce animal suffering, they recognize that many Americans refuse to give up their meat and do not give a thought to how their steak or chicken breast was produced. In vitro meat may not be contentedly received by the public, as evidenced by popular monikers such as “frankenfood,” but it is actually quite similar to the beloved hot dog. As Cara Santa Maria of Huffington Post points out, American culture glorifies the chicken nugget and the hot dog, which are highly processed meat products that are manufactured in a way analogous to cultured meat. Both types of meat products are a mixture of separate parts of an animal that are brought together to make one foodstuff.10 If Americans can embrace hot dogs and chicken nuggets, then a new culture of in vitro meat lovers is just the logical next step towards a future that will be cleaner, more sustainable, and cruelty-free.11
Overall, while continued research is necessary to make in vitro meat both feasible and commercially viable, when it is finally available it could very well completely replace hamburgers across the world. This replacement would lead to greater agricultural sustainability, put an end to cruel factory farms, help decrease the transmission of zoonotic diseases, and be a major step towards combating global climate change.6,8,9 With in vitro meat, everybody wins.
- “PETA Offers $1 Million Reward to First to Make In Vitro Meat.” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. 2012. Accessed February 28, 2012. http://www.peta.org/features/In-Vitro-Meat-Contest.aspx.
- “Why In Vitro Meat?” The In Vitro Meat Consortium. 2012. Accessed February 28, 2012. http://invitromeat.org/content/view/12/55/.
- Jones, Deborah. “First Test-Tube Hamburger Ready This Fall.” Discovery News. Discovery Communications, LLC. Last modified February 20, 2012. Accessed February 28, 2012. http://news.discovery.com/tech/test-tube-hamburger-120220.html.
- Edelman, P.D., et al. “In Vitro-Cultured Meat Production.” Tissue Engineering 11, no. 5-6 (2005): 659-662. Google Scholar. Accessed February 28, 2012. http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/pdf/10.1089/ten.2005.11.659.
- “What Is Meat?” Science of Cooking. Exploratorium. 2011. Accessed February 28, 2012. http://www.exploratorium.edu/cooking/meat/INT-what-is-meat.html.
- “Hamburger Junction.” The Economist. February 25, 2012: 94.
- Tuomisto, Hanna L., and M. Joost Teixeira de Mattos. “Environmental Impacts of Cultured Meat Production.” Environmental Science & Technology 45, no. 14 (2011): 6117-6123. Google Scholar. Accessed February 28, 2012. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es200130u.
- Price, Lance B., et al. “Staphylococcus aureus CC398: Host Adaptation and Emergence of Methicillin Resistance in Livestock.” mBio 3, no. 1 (2012). Google Scholar. Accessed February 28, 2012. http://mbio.asm.org/content/3/1/e00305-11.
- “Facts: Factory Farming.” In Defense of Animals. Accessed February 28, 2012. http://www.idausa.org/facts/factoryfarmfacts.html.
- Kaplan, David M., ed. The Philosophy of Food. Berkeley: U of California P, 2012. Google Books. Accessed February 28, 2012.
- Santa Maria, Cara. “In Vitro Meat: Will ‘Frankenfood’ Save the Planet or Just Gross Out Consumers?” Huffington Post. Last modified January 5, 2012. Accessed February 28, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/05/in-vitro-meat_n_1185128.html.
- Image credit (Creative Commons): de Nola, Fabrice. “Flesh Lab.” Flickr. Last modified February 2008. http://www.flickr.com/photos/fabricedenola/5046634041/.
- Image credit (Creative Commons): Licht, Mike. “Manufacturing Meat.” Flickr. Last modified April 22, 2008. http://www.flickr.com/photos/notionscapital/2433719317/.