NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Growing Meat

May 24, 2011

Hanna Tuomisto, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Ox­ford, coauthored a study last year on the potential environmental impacts of cultured meat.  The study found that such production, if scientists grew the muscle cells in a culture of cyanobacteria hydrolysate (a bacterium cultivated in ponds), would involve "approximately 35 to 60 percent lower energy use, 80 to 95 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions and 98 percent lower land use compared to conventionally produced meat products in Europe," says Scientific American.

  • As it is, 30 percent of the earth's ice-free land is used for grazing livestock and growing animal feed.
  • If cultured meat were to become viable and widely consumed, much of that land could be used for other purposes, including new forests that would pull carbon out of the air.
  • Meat would no longer have to be shipped around the globe because production sites could be located close to consumers.

In theory, an in vitro meat factory would work something like this:

  • First, technicians would isolate embryonic or adult stem cells from a pig, cow, chicken or other animal.
  • Then they would grow those cells in bioreactors, using a culture derived from plants.
  • The stem cells would divide and redivide for months on end.
  • Technicians would next instruct the cells to differentiate into muscle (rather than, say, bone or brain cells).
  • Finally, the muscle cells would need to be "bulked up" in a fashion similar to the way in which animals build their strength by exercising.

For now there are challenges at every stage of this process.  One difficulty is developing stem cell lines that can proliferate for long periods without suddenly deciding they want to differentiate on their own.  Cost is another barrier.  With currently available technology, it might cost $50,000 to produce a pound of meat.

Social acceptance is another challenge.  But that can change quickly, says Cor van der Weele of Wageningen University.  Once people realize that cultured meat is not genetically modified and could be a clean, animal-friendly alternative to factory farms, she says, "the scared, very negative response is often very fleeting."

Source: Jeffrey Bartholet , "When Will Scientists Grow Meat in a Petri Dish?" Scientific American, May 17, 2011.

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