Tuesday, January 21, 2014

First Burger Grown from Stem Cells Served in London

"On August 5, 2013, the first hamburger grown from stem cells in a laboratory, and not in a cow, was served in London. ... If this technology continues to evolve and is deployed at scale, it will have significant social, cultural, environmental, and economic implications." Carolyn Mattick and Brad Allenby launch the discussion in "The Future of Meat," in the Fall 2013 Issues in Science and Technology. 

To be sure, the technology isn't quite ready for fast food. "From an economic perspective, cultured meat is still an experimental technology. The first in vitro burger reportedly cost about $335,000 to produce and was made by possible by financial support from Google cofounder Sergey Brin." Mattick and Allenby discuss a number of technological challenges. 

But the potential for altering the environmental footprint of meet the global demand for meat is remarkable. They write: "Indeed, with the first meat-production facility, or “carnery,” probably only a few years away, an optimistic scenario might suggest that rapid public acceptance of its products could attract investors and soon lead to expanding industrial capacity for producing factory meat. The shift of meat production from field to factory could in turn significantly reduce global climate change forcing and lessen human impacts on the nitrogen, phosphorous, hydrologic, and other cycles, while reducing the land required to produce animal feed could mean more land for producing biofuels and other biological feedstocks for, for example, plastics production. ... One analysis performed by researchers at the universities of Oxford and Amsterdam and published in Environmental Science & Technology in 2011 concluded that, “In comparison to conventionally produced European meat, cultured meat involves approximately 7-45% lower energy use (only poultry has lower energy use), 78-96% lower GHG emissions, 99% lower land use, and 82-96% lower water use depending on the product compared.”

Of course, the pushback against this technology is likely to be strong at first, especially from agricultural interests and from some consumers. But technology can sometimes overcome nostalgia and alter our sense of the possible. For example, will environmentalists who view climate change as the overwhelmingly important issue of our time be willing to support production of cultured meat? Will animal rights activists who protest "factory farming" support cultured meat? Mattick and Allenby report that culturing skin is easier than culturing meat, so leather from cultured skill may be available at reasonable cost in a few years: "The Missouri firm Modern Meadow has an even shorter time horizon for a similar tissue engineering process aimed at producing leather (making cultured skin is simpler than producing meat). It has said in a Txchnologist article reprinted in Scientific American in 2013 that bioengineered leather products will be commercially available by about 2017."

Generational change alters what consumers view as acceptable, too. Mattick and Allenby write: "Food is a culturally charged domain, and the technological evolution of meat may well outpace cultural acceptance of radically new food production technology. Nonetheless, people may eventually look at a T-bone steak with the nostalgia they feel for the Apple IIe: It was an important contributor to technological evolution and economic productivity, but no one would choose it over an iPad." Food for thought, there.