Could you imagine a future where you wake up in the morning, rub your eyes, sleepily pad into the kitchen, brew your coffee… and then head to your keg to harvest the meat you’ll need to make that juicy, mouth-watering fry-up?
Yes, you read that right.
It doesn’t seem like the words ‘keg’ and ‘meat’ belong in the same sentence, but New Harvest – a non-profit research charity based in the United States – is revolutionising the field of cellular agriculture. Their mission involves making milk without cows, eggs without hens, and beef without cows to make food both more affordable and also more sustainable – a vital aim, given our ageing and ever-expanding population.
Cellular agriculture describes the production of substances that usually come from plants or animals (such as eggs, leather and wood); the only catch is that, instead of being made from their ‘natural’ source, they come from a culture of cells grown in a lab. For example, milk can be made from yeast, effectively bypassing the need for a cow.
“Milk without cows!?” I hear you scream in outrage. It’s actually really simple, but involves the genetic modification of the yeast cells. The β-casein gene is added to the genetic makeup of the yeast cells, such that they make a protein called casein, which is present in mammalian milk. This gene is read in exactly the same way by a tiny yeast cell as it is by a cow, and so the product is ultimately identical – all except the way it was made. Since cow’s milk is usually made by prolonging the female’s lactating state (before eventually sending the poor thing off to slaughter when her milk dries up), this method completely avoids any possibility of mistreating animals.
“The meat we’re used to eating is a delicate balance between both muscle and fat; recreating this balance in the lab is easier said than done”
It becomes a little bit more complicated when it comes to meat. The original cells must be derived from stem cells, usually harvested from the animal itself (either when it is living or fresh from the meat in the slaughterhouse). This is then scaled up in the lab by providing the cells with the nutrients they need to grow; however, what is basically produced is a luscious hunk of muscle – and not even a thick luscious hunk of muscle, since providing enough nutrients to sustain that many cells is more complex (and more expensive). Previous attempts at making meat have been somewhat successful by growing multiple specimens and lumping them together.
Furthermore, the meat we’re used to eating is a delicate balance between both muscle and fat. This sounds obvious, but recreating this balance in the lab is easier said than done, and there will no doubt be many taste tests and tweaks in the future to discover that heavenly mix of protein and cholesterol.
I don’t know about you, but the thought of biting into a lab-made collection of cells that claims to be a steak just doesn’t sit right with my stomach. But, back in 2013, the first ‘manmade burger’ was tasted and described as “close to meat, but not as juicy”. Given the many barriers that scientists in this field are facing, I don’t think that sounds half bad (although don’t sign me up for any taste tests in the near future).
Scientists predict that this way of synthesising animal products may become the norm in the next few years. Culturing avian meat (such as chicken and turkey) has been more successful, so if I were you, I wouldn’t expect to be nibbling on a prime rib made by cellular agriculture. As of 2016, New
Harvest have been investing money into producing turkey meat on a large scale, which can be done in a vessel such as a bioreactor. Or a keg.
…And you thought I was joking.