Even though we have yet to recover from the current recession, we still lead the world in economic might and that is reflected in our high rates of consumption of everything from crude oil to meat. Both of these commodities contribute to our exaggerated contribution to global warming.
As other countries expand their economies, that is become more wealthy, they tend to eat more meat. China in 1961 consumed four kilograms per person. By 2001 that jumped to fifty-four kilograms. Currently half of all pork produced in the world is consumed in China. By comparison the US eats over one hundred twenty kilos of meat per person per year. By the year 2050 global meat consumption is estimated to double, from the current 230 to 465 million tons.
The connection between meat consumption and wealth is easy to see. Protein from meat is expensive. The cheaper alternative comes from diet that balances beans and grains to provide complete protein – nutritious but bland. So what’s the harm if you can afford meat? Two factors; personal health effects such as heart disease correlate with high meat diets, and meat production contributes to global warming.
Enter the lab burger,stage left – PETA has a bounty out for the first practical lab grown meat. A study done a couple of years ago suggests that if meat could be “grown” in the lab, about 50 per cent less energy would be used, virtually no land would be needed, and ninety per cent less green house gases would be emitted compared to traditional agricultural methods. These environmental improvements result from considerable decreases in methane release from ruminants and decreased deforestation not needed for feed; corn and soybeans, and fodder; grass from pastures.
We now have a Petri patty, not practical by any measure but at least the proof of concept has been achieved. Last month a celebrity chef in London, England prepared the world’s first and only hamburger made from meat grown in cell culture in a laboratory in the Netherlands. The idea of lab meat is not new. As early as pre-world war II, Winston Churchill wrote about the possibility. He was concerned that a war which resulted in a blockade of the UK could threaten the population with starvation.
The process is simple in principle but extremely difficult in practice. The simple explanation: take a muscle cell from a cow, stimulate the cell to divide in a nutrient broth, and voilà! The lab burger. In practice the process took several years and over four million dollars. Tissue harvested from a carcass is first treated with an enzyme to remove connective tissue and release the muscle cells. The cells are cultured in fetal bovine serum, a fluid taken from slaughtered calves. Alternative cell culture media exist but performed poorly. Because the cells lack any vasculature the cells can only be grown in thin films. Also methods had to be developed to “exercise” the developing muscle tissue.
One final problem is physical, the cells are colorless and without fat so the lab meat was colored with beetroot juice and cooked in butter and oil. For cultured meat to become a real alternative it has to be a whole lot cheaper, redder and fattier.