When we first heard about lab-grown meat we were totally like “awh, fuck, dude, that’s totally gross” but after sitting down to chat with Mark Post, Professor of Vascular Physiology at Maastrich University and Chairman of the Dutch Society of Physiology, we're a little less queasy. Here’s what he had to say about this potential source of cheap, healthy, low-energy eats…
When did the idea of growing meat in the lab get started?
It all started with Willem van Eelen – he's an 80 year-old guy from Amsterdam and he came up with the idea just after the Second World War having spent time in Japanese camps as a prisoner of war. He had experienced hunger and he thought 'well you know we should be able to grow meat more efficiently, in vitro – in a laboratory'. He kept playing with that idea and got funding from the Dutch government about six years ago together with three universities, one of which was my university, and then from there we developed the idea.
So what does the process of growing meat in vitro entail?
We take stem cells from muscles of cows or pigs or other animals. The stem cells are sitting in the skeletal muscle and they are there to repair injured muscle, so they can only become muscle, nothing else. But they do have the ability to divide and multiply, so we use that principle to produce a whole bunch of cells. We differentiate them into muscle cells, which pretty much grow by themselves, and then we build a tissue from it by seeding them onto a temporary carrier. We feed the carrier, which could take any shape or form, and then they grow not in number but in size and thereby potentially producing a strip of muscle tissue – which is essentially meat.
We saw plans for the whole process to be implemented in one long factory line, using algae ponds to provide nutrition for the 'meat'…
Well that would be the future idea, yes. Currently we are still using traditional culture methods to grow the meat, but eventually we want to make the process scale-able as well as resource, energy and cost-efficient. Of course then you need to work on what you feed the cells and one of the ideas is to use extracts of algae to feed the cells.
There is a lot of discussion about how unsustainable current meat consumption is – how much more efficient could producing meat in the lab be?
Well we have made estimates, but there are lots of assumptions and you should take it with a pinch of salt. First of all currently pigs and cows are not very efficient in producing the meat; for every 15g of meat you have to put in 100g of vegetable produce as food for the animals – that gives us the opportunity to make it much more efficient in the lab because we have more variable control, so the estimation is that we can produce this meat with 80% less energy.
What do you think the consumer reaction will be? Will people want to buy lab-grown meat?
First of all we don't really have a whole lot of choice because current meat production is not sustainable, we already are using more than 50% of our arable lands for meat production and consumption is going to increase the coming 40 years, it's actually going to double by 2050 according to the World Health Organisation – so there are really no alternatives. That obviously determines whether people will accept it or not, if you don't have the choice it's easy. The price of meat as we know it is going to rise no matter what we do, because the demand is increasing the production can't keep up. Now the meat price is way too low because the meat prices have not followed the grain prices, which they should. So eventually we will have the choice, I imagine 20 years from now, when you go into a supermarket and you will have two almost identical products. One is made using traditional farming methods and the other is made in a factory; they taste the same, they feel the same, they look the same, they are probably equally expensive or the in vitro product may actually be cheaper because it can keep up with production. Also you will have all the negative associations with traditional meat, so the Animal Welfare Association, the environmental associations, they will have a label saying in the making of this product animals have suffered. Then the question is will we still persist in choosing traditional grown meat? I think not.
What are the potential health benefits of lab meat? Could you for example make it more vitamin rich?
In the laboratory we can control many variables that determine the eventual outcome of the meat, and I just want to stress that this is still at the moment a completely natural process. We don't manipulate the cells, we just grow them and let them do their thing. We don't genetically modify them in any way, we just take them out of the animals and then we grow them. You could envision that by changing the food to the cells in a much more precise and defined way than you do the animals you can change, for instance, the fatty acid composition of the meat, thereby making it healthier and less cholesterol heavy. This would be with no genetic modification at all.
So you reckon we can buy these products in about 20 years time?
That's of course a very dangerous prediction, I really don't know. Once we have provided a proof of concept which we will do shortly, in a year or so, it will still take a lot of work to optimise the process and to make it cost-efficient and resource efficient. And with the resources that we have right now, especially with the funding and the number of people that are working on it, that's going to take forever! However if people and companies and governments become more interested in it, and start investing in it, it could potentially go quite rapidly. It could well be that in 10 or 20 years we have it on the shelves.
Image: lab-grown muscle cells