Finger-Lickin’ Petri Dish? ScientistGrows Meat in Lab

3/30/2013 7:00 AM
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant New York Correspondent

If you raise meat animals, you expect competition from others in your industry — both home and, to a small degree, abroad. But not from a Petri dish.

Yet that’s exactly what Mark Post, a physiologist from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, has in mind, according to a March 25 Time magazine article. The story describes Post and his team’s work generating meat tissue in vitro. They anticipate enough meat for a burger in a few months.

But several experts in New York’s meat industry say the so-called “Frankenburger” has a long way to go, and that its proponents unfairly malign the industry.

The process involves growing embryonic meat cells taken from live animals via biopsy. Amino acids, sugars and minerals encourage cell growth, along with, in some cases, proteins taken from blood. The scientists attach the cells to organic materials to help them grow and within a few weeks, muscle and fat result.

So why grow meat in a dish rather than on an animal, especially when the estimated cost for a burger, according to a New York Times story, is $300,000?

The Time article said that growing the “Frankenburgers” and “Franken-nuggets” “might help save the planet,” noting the current meat industry, by contrast, is endangering natural resources.

Post did not respond to a request for an interview; however, in a story published in Maastricht University’s webmagazine he stated, “Already, 70 percent of the world’s farmland is used for stock breeding. When meat demand increases, there will be a gigantic shortage of meat. Meat producers will be tempted to use even more vegetable proteins for stock breeding, which will put yet greater pressure on the provision of world food. We’re heading for major problems in this area in the coming decades. So, if we can produce laboratory meat this way, only more efficiently and with a smaller carbon footprint, this could be a solution.”

The Time article stated that lab meat would use 45 percent less energy and 99 percent less land, acreage that could otherwise be cultivated for growing plant-based food for humans.

Mike Baker, beef cattle Extension specialist for Cornell University, disagreed.

“Cattle convert resources that are not available to humans,” he said. “Land that isn’t suitable for crops is used to convert that forage into protein. It’s a very sustainable cycle. Cattle are a benefit to the environment for keeping land in production.

“Most of the diet of an animal meant for slaughter is still forage. It’s not until its last 120 days that it’s eating grain mix and even that’s part forage.”

Phil Trowbridge, owner of Trowbridge Farms in Ghent, N.Y., raises 300 head of cattle for meat.

“It is sustainable,” he said of the beef industry. “We’ve become much more efficient over the last 10 years, say nothing of the last 40 years. The cattle efficiently convert feed to meat. I don’t see it slowing down. The genome information we have now will expedite it. It’s definitely sustainable. I don’t see (lab-generated meat) as a real threat in the near future.”

On the Maastricht University site, Post stated that the meat industry is “responsible for a large percentage of greenhouse gas emissions.”

The Time article also blasted the meat industry’s “factory farms” for producing “vast amounts of waste: some 2 trillion pounds of animal waste, which pollutes air and water.”

“The article makes very broad and incorrect assumptions about farming today,” said Steve Ammerman, New York Farm Bureau public affairs manager. “Our farmers are becoming more efficient every day, using fewer resources to produce more food in an environmentally conscious and responsible way.”

Baker said Time’s generalized assertions about waste damaging the environment were incorrect.

“All farms of any size have strict controls on the application of manure,” Baker said. “Manure is a valuable commodity given the price of fertilizer. Compost facilities can help homeowners and gardeners and manure is also a valuable commodity for digesters.”

While an interesting science project to some and an attack on the meat industry to others, the big question to everyone is, “Will consumers want to eat meat that did not grow on an animal?”

At first blush, it would seem that vegetarians would embrace lab-grown meat; however, since the originating material must be extracted from animals, the lab meat is sourced from an animal and strict vegetarians would reject it.

Animal rights supporters may also find that the starter material for each time a scientist wants to grow more meat requires a biopsy from a living animal.

General consumers will also need to wrap their minds — and taste buds — around the notion that their burger, chicken breast or other meat came from a lab, not a farm.

Joe Regenstein, a professor of food science at Cornell University, said he thinks that even if lab meat can be mass produced at an affordable rate, its marketability will be an impediment to its success.

“My concern is what will this meat look like, taste like, what will its texture be?” he said. “Meat is a very complicated material and it isn’t just one set of cells. It’s a mix of blood vessels, connective tissue. It’s an important first step, but it will be much longer than people expect to replace a good steak.

“I have a hard time thinking that a cell culture will come anywhere close to meat. With the emphasis on whole, local foods vs. processed, this whole concept doesn’t sit well with what the consumer wants.”

Ammerman agreed.

“While farmers would know better than anyone how to raise great-tasting, healthy meat, ultimately it is consumers who decide what they want to eat,” he said. “However, I don’t think I would be going out on a limb to say an overwhelming majority of people would rather enjoy a steak from a local farm than from a lab Petri dish.”

Baker also wondered if lab meat’s nutrition will rival standard meat’s offerings of iron and other nutrients.

Like any processed food, “good manufacturing practices will make a safe product,” Baker said. “If you work hard at it, you will probably avoid a lot of the natural pathogens.”

As for lab meat’s impact on the industry, he doesn’t think producers should worry.

“It’s nowhere near on the horizon yet, and I don’t think it ever will be, but maybe future developments will change that,” Baker said. “I don’t see anything happening for at least 50 years.”

Eliminating meat animals would also nix useful byproducts, such as to the textile and pharmaceutical industries.

“There’s a lot more than just meat,” Baker said. “There’s a lot of use of the animal beyond that.”

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