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Lab-Grown meat hitting shelves by 2019!

Lab-grown meat in a petri dish


You heard that correctly. Lab-grown meat, a.k.a. “clean meat”, is coming to a supermarket near you soon. What does this mean for meat eaters, raw-feeding dog owners and the planet, is discussed below.

Lab-grown meat in a petri dish

How Do They Grow Lab-Meat?

The whole process is built around the stem cells. Have you heard the old science saying “you are not who you were last month?”. It’s in relation to the fact skin cells last about 2-3 weeks before dying off an being replaced. Thus, you will have a different skin each month. Some cells live for a lot longer (red blood cells for 5months, bone for longer) but practically all cells (I’m not aware of any that don’t) grow, tire, are killed off and replaced in an endless cycle in the body, one that get’s worse with age, as we all know. This whole process is governed by stem cells. Used for cell regeneration and repair, practically every part of our body contains stem cells but a happy quirk of these amazing cells is that with a little encouragement they have the remarkable ability to develop into practically any different cell type, dividing essentially without limit as long as the body (or solution) feeds them.

Stem cells are distinguished from other cell types by two important characteristics. First, they are termed unspecialised cells capable of renewing themselves through cell division, sometimes after long periods of inactivity. Second, under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, they can be induced to become tissue- or organ-specific cells with special functions.

Scientists first discovered ways to derive embryonic stem cells from early mouse embryos more than 30 years ago, in 1981. Rapidly, we learned that human stem cells (from embryos, hence termed “embryonic” stem cells) could hold a key to replacing lost or degenerating pars of the body but with this came the inevitable controversy with which we are all now familiar. This pushed the scientists to discover and utilise “non-embryonic” or adult stem cells, in the very same manner and this is the key to clean meat. With the debate avoided and the need for non-meat proteins rocketing in the population, the brakes are off and it’s a rush to see who can bring the first commercially viable lab-grown meat to the market. The company Just is most likely to make it happen.

The Trials and Tribulations of the Clean-Protein Giant “Just”…

Driven by in part by a desire to reduce meat consumption and animal hardship but also, let’s face it, by cash, this part-pharma-part-biotech company responsible for a lot of the veggie proteins we are eating today including a product that looks very much like scrambled egg. It is made from the humble mung bean and it is a key ingredient in their now highly popular egg-free mayos. Just’s focus is now almost entirely on the pursuit of the lab-grown meat sector but from the very start, they have been up against it. Some problems fair, others less so.

One of their biggest challenges is trying to find the right liquid for the meat cells to grow in, a liquid that gives them everything they need. Currently, that liquid is “foetal bovine serum” which, as the name suggests, is harvested from unborn calves. This is ethically and economically a non-starter for the mass production of clean meat. But they are working hard on it and by all accounts are nearly there. Once they find this the product could be replicated infinitely in a bioreactor which soon will drive costs down to the floor.

Another issue is that they haven’t quite figured out how to get the structure and texture of meat right. So they can’t make the clean meat cells take the form of a steak or chicken breast but burger meat and chicken nuggets is easy. In fact, they have a range of chicken nuggets (made from a chicken called Ian that is still alive and kicking after his little donation) which is hitting market shelves by the end of this year, as the video below shows.

Technical issues aside, you obviously now have to defend yourself from the onslaught of greedy corporations who are not willing to relinquish their hold of the meat market. First up, the American egg board. The Egg Board now only did up a few petitions to state their case about how unfair it was to them for this and that but they hired a team of writers to “trash the product” online, a campaign the USDA ruled was “inappropriate”. At one stage Egg Board members were caught stating in an email “can we pool our money and put a hit on him?”. Just only had 15-20 people working for them at that stage but now things are different. Just recently raised an eye-watering $310mil in venture capital and the petty Egg Board has been replaced by the might of the US Cattlemen Association. Their beef (har har) is the right of a company to use the word “beef” or “meat” on a product that is not meat. This is important to Just, the majority of consumers need to see that word on there, so they are fighting that too.

Can we Expect it to be Nutritionally as Good for us?!

When research shows that regularly indulging in meat can lead to higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some kinds of cancer, Professor Mark Post of the University of Maastricht, the scientist behind the first in-vitro burger, believes that test tube meat will, in fact, be better for us. Reported in, Professor Post states;

We gain greater control over what the meat consists of, for example its fat content…and the reduction in the number of farmed animals reduces the chance of zoonosis (infectious diseases that spread from animals to people).

The piece goes on to quote Joan Salge Blake, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, who looks forward to the fact that they will be able to replace high levels of saturated fatty acids with the likes of omega-3 fatty acids. This can only be a good thing.

In short, you must remember that these cells are producing real meat. That’s what they do and they can do nothing else, they are simply grown in an artificial manner. Therefore the basic nutrition of those meat cells should be the same. As long as we give our dogs a variety of these clean meats (clean organ meats, clean cartilage, clean bone) then we could cautiously expect that food to be as good as any raw dog food product out there currently. It will also be safer, of lower global impact and ethically sound.

Why do we Need Lab-Grown Meat Right Now?

If we ignore the gross ethical concerns of the mass-produced meat and egg sector for the moment and the fact a lot of cooked meat simply isn’t good for you, Paul Shapiro, author of “Clean Meat”, highlights that raw meat these days is not unlike having toxic waste in your fridge. You need to carefully wash your hands, don’t put it on your counter, bottom shelf of the fridge etc. This is because of the intestinal pathogens (pathogens that come from the food tube of the animal, a.k.a. poo) that contaminate the products when slaughtered. It is the reason we are strongly advised to “cook the crap” out of the product! Love that. With clean meat you don’t grow intestines, just the muscle you want, so you don’t eat poo, making it safer.

This is all before we assess the global impact of the meat industry, particularly on the environment. Not unlike a bacteria in a jar, as we continue to grow exponentially in numbers, consuming everything in our path and spewing out waste behind us, our resources are dwindling and our environment is becoming toxic. All the signs are now screaming at us that the planet, in terms of fresh water, poisoned seas and depleting soil quality, is buckling under the strain and it most certainly heating up due to human influence. We simply cannot continue on the way we are going.

an image of the earth on fire

Of all the industries negatively impacting our environment, the agri-meat sector is possibly the worst offender in terms of carbon footprint. Mary Robinson, former president of the world and now Special Envoy on El Niño and Climate Change, is enthusing on folk that meat eating is not working out for us from a climate perspective. The beef sector alone produces more harmful gases than the ENTIRE transport industry (cars, planes, trains, etc). This is before you consider the amount of cereal it takes to feed them and the amount of unprocessed waste they produce, etc.

As India and China slowly turn to the Western diet (as it’s working out sooo well for us) there isn’t enough agricultural land space available today produce the cereal the cattle would need to be fed on. Let alone in 30 years when we increase by 30% in numbers. Studies show that the greenhouse gas emissions in kilograms of carbon dioxide per day (kgCO2e/day) for various human diets were:

7.19 for high meat-eating humans ( > = 100 g/d)
5.63 for medium meat-eaters (50-99 g/d)
4.67 for low meat-eaters ( < 50 g/d)
3.91 for fish-eaters
3.81 for vegetarians and
2.89 for vegans.

In other words, the greenhouse gas emissions for meat eaters are approximately twice those for vegetarians. And now we are waking up to the fact that the greatest animal on the planet are feckin’ meat eaters!

Apex predators are so called as they are top of the food pyramid. Normally, while there are lots of prey there’s not that many of them around. They have large home ranges as there’s only so much meat to go round. We now have 300,000 dogs in Ireland when normally, going by the area available, there would be less than 10,000 wild dogs living in such a space (previous post, extrapolated from wild dog home ranges). There are 8mil dogs in the UK. 90mil in the US. Then you add cats into the mix and start to worry.

These animals need a lot of meat.

Let’s compare their impact to the car industry. If we take it that we do 12,000km per year in our cars, that’s 33km per day. If a new car today puts out around 130g of CO2 per km (trust me!) then our cars are producing an average 4.3kg of CO2 per day, up into the air. We worry about this but we think nothing of the 500g of meat your dog eats. But what if I told you 1kg of beef generates between 36kg about 44kg of CO2 (again trust me, worked out from various sources)? If you were to feed 500g to your dog then you are inadvertently adding a greenhouse-busting 20kg of CO2 to the environment each and every meal.

That’s a knee-high dog adding five times more to the greenhouse effect than your car in the driveway. Every single day.
(chicken and fish cost about half this, lamb the same as beef, vegetables around one-seventh).

You could say that they are eating the scraps of the industry but 1) that’s no longer really true and 2) even if they did they are simply providing a valuable outlet for this material which will, in fact, cheapen the rest of the carcass (farmers only need so much for the animal), meaning meat prices will fall and more meat will be eaten by the human market!

This is why, in a recent article in the Guardian, giving up meat (and pets and having children) is now deemed the most important thing you can do make a difference to global climate change.

Obviously, clean meat’s carbon footprint would be an immediate solution here.

Clean Meat, In Conclusion…

There will be a hill to climb for the clean meat sector. Vested interests aside, there is always a concern that the public, fuelled by these industry-loaded reports, might turn against this “franken-food”. However, as Shapiro above rightly highlights, you’re already eating franken-food. You think genetically modified chickens grown in deplorable conditions and doused with antibiotics to stay alive for their 11wks, animals that can’t walk but sit in their own faeces and rinsed in bleach to remove some of the faeces splashback is normal food?!

So yes, the franken-food concept will be a problem to overcome, one equal to simply getting people to eat less meat in the first place, but here’s my prediction. In the coming decades, when carbo-taxation of our consumable products is brought in in earnest to curb our global impact, meat prices will appropriately sore. Soon, owning giant breeds will be left to the rich and careless. Dog numbers and dog size will plummet. That aside, when we do jack up the price of meat for reasons of carbon cost (and not, let’s face it, to help the suffering animals in any way) the rising cost of real meat will greatly help the clean meat sector. It’s only a matter of time.

In my opinion, that day can’t come soon enough.

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