Medical researchers have long been able to grow muscle tissue in the lab. Factory-grown meat just adapts this technology to industrial-scale meat production.
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Lowering cost is the key
“In biomedical tissue engineering, the skeletal muscle is produced in very small portions — square centimeters instead of square meters — at a high cost,” Matheny says.
A large part of that cost is the growing medium, calf serum. In vitro meat research currently is focused on finding ways to do this cheaper. In fact, research in the Netherlands has narrowed the search to media made from four varieties of mushrooms.
If suitable growing media are perfected, Matheny says factory-grown meat could compete with meat from animals. After all, farm animals, due to maintenance requirements, convert little of what they're fed into what we ultimately eat. In vitro meat would have no waste, bones or offal to dispose.
Matheny says a lot of inefficiencies are introduced into meat processing because, “farm animals are simply the wrong shape.” Most meat processing involves changing the shape of farm animals into cuts that can be consumed. Producing meat by the square yard eliminates most of the costs associated with processing live animals.
“We've managed to make meat production much more efficient in terms of labor, but it wouldn't be as efficient as just one person pushing a button on an enormous incubator,” Matheny says. “There are also inefficiencies caused by meat production's unpredictable nature — the problems caused by biology and weather. It would be much more efficient economically if we found a way to decrease all that variability and bring the whole thing into a controlled setting.”
At first glance, all the effort being put into developing in vitro meat seems as pointless as re-inventing the wheel. After all, Mother Nature has already provided us with cattle, hogs and chicken.
“Control is the main advantage,” Matheny says. “While we've gotten pretty good at controlling marbling in live animals, it could be done much more accurately in vitro. We could precisely control how much fat there is, its location, even the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids.
“Because you could produce ground beef with the fat profile of salmon, in vitro meat could satisfy a consumer's interests in healthier meats. Consumers' concerns about fat and cholesterol could be addressed in a way we can't with live animals,” he adds.
Producing the meat supply in a highly secure, sterile environment, such as a pharmaceutical bioreactor, also would dramatically lower the risk of bacterial contamination or disease. It would be easier to protect a few meat factories from bioterrorism than a national herd spread over 600 million acres. In the Netherlands, where most research on in vitro meat is centered, it's driven by the need to reduce intensive livestock farming's environmental impact.