Can artificial meat really keep its promises?

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Six years have passed since Mark Post, a Dutch professor of physiology, took part in an American show, his first "Steak in vitro". The food utopia of a meat without ox became a reality, materialized in the form of a strange group of muscle fibers colored with beetroot juice, designed in the laboratory by animal cells. Apparently close to a classic minced meat, the production of this piece of meat still needed 250,000 euros.

To synthesize the meat it is necessary to slaughter as many cows as for the production of beef. | Mosaic meat

Getting meat without killing animals is no longer science fiction. And the sector is the subject of massive investments, including wealthy media personalities such as businessmen Richard Branson and Bill Gates or actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

US, Israeli and European startups – such as Memphis Meats, Just, Aleph Farms, SuperMeat, Future Meat Technologies and Mosa Meat – are leading the way in this emerging market, in a context of calls to reduce energy consumption. meat, especially for environmental reasons, is increasing.

In vitro pregnancy

Mark Post is co-author of "Meat Meat" after his first important presentation: this Dutch start-up dedicated to meat in the crop claims to be in the process of industrialization and aims to produce hamburgers in the laboratory at a unit cost of almost 10 euros ; the first public sale is scheduled for 2021. The ultimate goal is to be cheaper than traditional meat. Meanwhile, start-ups promise that by 2020, eating a steak in a laboratory will be a culinary experience offered by gourmet restaurants at extremely high prices but still marketable.

How can this result be achieved without killing animals? At Mosa Meat, the production involves three main phases: the process begins with a collection of stem cells from the muscle of an animal – a cow, for example, if the goal is to produce beef. Stem cells are those in the body that create new muscle tissue when the muscle is injured. It is this property that is used in the production of meat in the laboratory.

The cells are placed in an environment conducive to their proliferation and therefore differentiate into muscle cells when the arrest includes the supply of nutrients. These then form a muscle fiber called "myotube" which does not exceed the length of 0.3 mm.

Placed in a gel, these myotubes gradually take on volume to become a small piece of muscle tissue. Production processes can vary depending on the company, but also on the type of meat (mainly beef, chicken and pork). This is an average of forty-four days for this process. In comparison, a cow is usually slaughtered after a few years of life for its meat.

Massive investments

Richard Branson says that over the next 30 years no more animals will be killed for their meat. Cultivated meat is the only future of meat.

Bill Gates has designated cultured meat as one of the key key technologies of 2019.

The traditional meat sector is not mistaken: Bell Food Group, one of the leading meat producers in Europe, and the US giants Tyson Foods and Cargill, have invested millions in global start-ups. culture meat. They are leveraging the highly disruptive potential of this emerging industry, which could simply discard the people who raise cattle from the meat production process.

This sector is not yet fully developed, as it requires a progressive increase in the production process: none of the start-ups today claims to possess the solutions to the challenges posed. For example, they have not yet managed to get rid of fetal calf serum and other animal-derived molecules that are essential for artificial meat production.

Many obstacles to overcome

The fetal calf serum is obtained from the blood of fetuses taken from pregnant cows at the time of slaughter. This expensive elixir, which represents about 80% of the cost of producing artificial meat, requires more cows to be harvested today. And it will probably be a problem for the consumer, as requested by the CEO of Mosa Meat, who claims that his company will not be launched on the market with a product that contains it.

There is a synthetic version of this serum, but the growth factors found are extremely expensive. Currently they are produced and used only in very small quantities, for scientific research.

Another challenge is the ability to produce real butcher pieces, not just minced meat. Finally, stem cells are also problematic because they do not reproduce indefinitely. Some start-ups are exploring the path of genetic modification, which would make this meat of the "GMO" culture.

A controversial environmental impact

In this adventure in the meat market, in vitro producers and meat lobbies – such as the Good Food Institute, an NGO investing Y Combinator, the famous American start-up accelerator (Airbnb, Reddit, Dropbox, etc.) – argue a series of arguments to defend the need for this innovation.

One of the main ones? The environmental cause The cultivated steak would be a much less polluting alternative. According to Mosa Meat, a sample of cells taken from a cow would produce 80,000 pieces of meat. With the current breeding, it would take almost thirty-four cows.

In fact, the production of meat as we know it today is one of the most polluting and resource-consuming human activities. Not to mention the ethical issues raised by animal abuse in the livestock sector.

In vitro meat is therefore the ideal solution, according to the people who promote it, trying to impose the name of "Clean meat" to describe this new sector.

The environmental benefits of this alternative are nothing but unanimous. The study of scientists at the universities of Oxford and Amsterdam, which announced a drastic reduction in environmental impact in 2011, was subsequently strongly criticized, in particular on the values ​​of some parameters.

How can we reasonably estimate the energy consumption of giant meat factories when no one exists today and the scale production process is unknown? Since then some of the results of this study have been revised downwards. For its part, the World Economic Forum (Davos Forum) declared at the beginning of 2019 that farmed meat emissions would be only about 7% lower than those of the current beef production. And a new study published in February ensures that in the long term this emerging industry could be even more polluting than current livestock.

The cost of producing the first steak in vitro was $ 250,000. | Mosaic meat

Really clean meat?

Health is another topic of people who produce synthetic meat: it contains no antibiotic residues and there is no risk of bacteriological contamination that accompanies slaughtered meat.

However, artificial meat cleaning is widely questioned. The famous nutritional serum above is composed of growth factors, energy nutrients, amino acids, hormones and antibiotics and antifungals. The scaffolding material necessary for its production contains collagen and gelatin.

Production on an industrial scale that cares about its consequences for health and the environment Bell Food Group

The industrialization of production could also involve the entry of pathogens such as listeria. Scientists observe that the protocols needed to produce commercial volumes would be higher than those required in the pharmaceutical industry. Cell culture at this scale poses serious risks of cross-contamination.

Giants of cellular agriculture

One question remains: in the context of an increase in the world population and the climatic emergency, how to satisfy the poor appetite of man for meat? The emerging artificial meat industry will undoubtedly complete the existing offer, including traditional meat and vegetable meat.

However, it does not hide its ambition to make the traditional meat industry obsolete and thus to conquer a global market of 180 billion euros a year.

Wouldn't these new players in cell agriculture take the seed of their elders, who joined the chemical industry?

The future giants of mobile agriculture will undoubtedly be start-ups supported by meat producers, in collaboration with important pharmaceutical companies for which this market constitutes an extension of their value chain since they produce the culture medium. necessary for the production of this meat

Trying to patent tomorrow's meat and joining the pharmaceutical industry, these new players in mobile agriculture would not take the seed of their elderly, industrial agriculture giants, who patented seed and associated with the 39; chemical industry?

This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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