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  • Writer's pictureAlison Hayward

The Burger Lab

Updated: Jul 20, 2018

Meat in a Petri Dish

Invitro (Lab Grown) Meat, I think has enormous possibilities for replacing farmed, processed meat burgers and sausages, meat for pie fillings the low value stuff. As a species we need to reduce our impact on the planet and our agriculture has a huge foot print, not just meat production but also our demand for high value crops think avocados, out of season tomatoes and baby corns, and our non-food crops palm oil and crops for bio fuel also have the potential to be damaging.

Why me why this topic? I am a meat eater, less than I did but I have a weakness for bacon. Acedamically there is genomics (a lot of the technology is familiar to me and it is interesting to see it used like this, and before genomics agriculture degree and even earlier growing up on a small farm with livestock, I have eaten what I helped to rear and have seen the sharp end of an abattoir. I am also aware that so much of the English countryside, our wild places are man made and with out our continued interference / management would look very different and much of that artificial landscape however pleaseing to the eye is the result of agriculture.

Meat production has particular issues, in the west we are wedded to the idea of meat forming a substantial part of our diet and meat being cheap. Historically neither was true and if you were to look at traditional dishes say a Lancashire hot pot or a cassoulet the meat while integral is padded out with a large proportion of veg and or pulses.

Meat was a treat; the fatted calf or pig was slaughtered in the autumn with some ceremony the bits that couldn’t be preserved were eaten there and then the rest preserved by any means possible until spring returned. This is the origin of curing and smoking of black pudding and sausages, salamis and of the noble haggis. There also was no waste no turning up of noses at a bit of offal, there is a saying of a pig that there is nothing left but the squeal, everything of the slaughtered animal was eaten it was a valuable source of vital protein.

We didn’t have alternative sources of protein it was animal based or nothing and humans need protein 40 to 70 grams a day. Nearly impossible from oats and barley, much easier from soya and the other high protein seeds we have access to now (these crops however need high levels of nitrogen inputs which brings with it its’s own issues).

We have become cultural meat eaters and largely divorced from its means of production, I don’t think that there should be hands free packaging for meat, you should know what it feels like, you should know where it comes from. It is not enough to look for a red tractor, freedom food or even organic (a minefield of registration schemes). This is as true for your vine ripened toms as it is for rump steak.

What though of the advantages of lab grown meat , I decided to do a little bit of research (long train journeys ideal opportunity).

Curious geek that I am I wanted to know more about the science behind it, what the cultures are being “fed”, to grow animal protein? protein or at least amino acids will need to be provided.

What is the conversion rate compared to a live animal?

What other inputs are needed, laboratories are expensive place to do things can this really be upscaled to a manufacturing process?

This is new, ground breaking stuff I was expecting to be able to find academic papers that even if I couldn’t get access to the articles I would be able to read the abstracts and may be get the supplementary information.

I can’t, and the reason is this technology has gone straight in to start-up companies and so become “commercial and in confidence” (whole other post or two about funding research and the malevolent influence of Monsanto /Bayer).

What I have found is this piece The Science behind lab-grown meat - Swartz by someone who has trodden the same path as me and raised the same issue of information. What it does do well is explain some of the fundamental science behind the technology, stem cells, cell culture and immortal cell lines.

What I do now know is that currently the technology doesn’t use immortal cell lines, this means new cells need to be periodically harvested from live animals, the current growth medium also uses animal derived material. This isn’t a barrier my assumption is that you don’t really want to convert a vegetarian or vegan back to consuming animal derived protein and the logical aim is to get committed meat eaters to consume something with less environmental impact.

From what I read it is the intention to move in the direction of immortal cell lines, this may bring in some ethical issues of its own as these cells would need to be modified would the GM ness of it create consumer opposition.

Animal welfare, the current technology means that cells for the starter culture need to be regularly collected. This means farming albeit with far fewer numbers, in effect this means repeated biopsies and these animals will be housed in very restrictive conditions essential to maintain the food safety aspects of production.

And what of cost?

What I could find about predictive prices indicates that this will even in the medium term be about twice as expensive as farmed meat, so finding wide acceptance will be important as this is designed really to replace processed meat, sausages and burgers. It needs to be cheap, I am sure that the prices will come down, but enough consumers are needed to drive this. I will happily be part of it, but I am not the consumer demographic that is really needed.

I realise that I now sound negative I am not, I am excited, and would be more so if I could get some answers or at least see the proposed next steps. I could then be an ambassador and fly the flag with conviction. I assume that if I was a potential investor for one of the companies I could see more of the magic. The issues I have mentioned are problems to be over come the same is true of all new technologies.

This could be globally important, but the technology needs to be democratised and not sit in the hands of a few commercial organisations.

And if the promise becomes reality?

Less land used for agriculture means we can do other things with it.

we could give it back to the planet re-wild it. Is this a utopian notion?

The likely default response to land being made available because of a contraction of agriculture, in the UK at least, will be to build on it for housing (much needed) or commercial enterprise. How do we preserve the space? Does it become an extension of nature reserves pay your subs to the RSPB, WWT, NT etc. and you get to play in an open plan zoo, no internal fences but exclusive the moment money is involved you exclude people who would most benefit. There are already some great re-wilding projects, but they are on estates largely a form of environmental philanthropy. How do we allow space to be just that a space where not only can our bodies and minds wander freely but the natural world is free to be?

I have no answer, but it requires a cultural shift to say space and time have an important intrinsic value.

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