By Rosa Burston
With growing awareness of the severe environmental damage caused by animal agriculture, the search for solutions has led to significant progress in developing lab cultivated meat in recent years. The process currently works by taking stem cells, either embryonic stem cells or adult bone marrow cells, from an animal. These cells are then placed in a growth medium and left to replicate and develop into animal tissue using a ‘scaffold’, which can produce boneless or ground meat such as hamburgers or sausages. In order to create more structured meats, like steak, muscle tissue must be taken from an animal and stimulated to grow directly.
A recent study at the University of Bath has used grass as the structural support to successfully grow pig cells. Researchers hope this can act as a starting point for industrially scaled bacon production using bioreactors.
Dr Marianne Ellis, a Senior Lecturer in Biochemical Engineering said, “What we’re doing here is looking to design bioreactors, and the bioprocess around the bioreactors, to grow muscle cells on a large scale that is economical and safe and high quality, so we can supply the muscle cells as cultured meats to as many people as want it.”
In theory this process would allow up to 50,000 tonnes of meat to be produced from just 10 muscle cells from a pig, potentially using only a minute fraction of the resources currently required for this kind of quantity. Lab cultured meat has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions, increase land available to feed a growing world population and save thousands of gallons of water each day.
Cultured meat also has multiple potential health benefits. At present, processed meat consumption is associated with increased heart disease, digestive tract cancer, and type 2 diabetes risk. Lab-grown meat would be free of the growth hormones currently used in some meat production, reducing these risks. It has also been suggested that omega-3 fatty acids and other vitamins could be added to cultured meat products to compensate for a common lack in dietary consumption.
Despite declining antibiotic usage for livestock in the UK, misuse in healthy animals still needlessly promotes antimicrobial resistance (AMR). The introduction of an alternative meat source can indirectly combat concerns about the rise of AMR as demand for meat continues to rise globally.
The process of growing meat in a lab isn’t yet refined enough for commercial use. Firstly, a suitable culture medium to grow cells in hasn’t been agreed on by scientists. The solution will need to be inexpensive, lacking in any animal products and non-allergenic for the majority of consumers. When these barriers are overcome, we may have a meaty, yet meat-free, revolution in Western food production.