Would you eat meat grown in a lab? That was the loaded question Darryl Benjamin of Real Food Seminars asked students in the Werth Learning Community Forum Wednesday night. As part of his talk called “Motherless Meat: From Petri Dish to Plate,” Benjamin discussed consumers’ attitudes toward cultured meat, as well as the science behind this product’s sustainability and scalability.
Cultured meat, or in vitro meat (IVM), as Benjamin referred to the product throughout his discussion, is a meat product that has been produced using tissue-engineering processes in a lab. Though this process can be used on any sort of meat, most research focuses on meat from cows, as the agricultural production of beef leaves a massive carbon footprint and world demand for beef is increasing.
“[IVM takes] advantage of scientific breakthroughs in tissue engineering, materials sciences, bioengineering and synthetic biology to design new ways to produce existing agricultural products without animals,” Benjamin said. “The idea is to grow meat in a culture in the lab and manipulate its composition so that you can enhance particular attributes of it.”
To create this motherless meat, stem cells are extracted from live cows and are grown on a substrate of fetal bovine serum (FBS). The cells eventually form muscle strands, and these strands are put together to form a product resembling ground beef. IVM can produce one trillion muscle strands from just one stem cell, and this adds up to a lot of burgers, according to Benjamin.
Proponents of IVM say cultured meat may reduce the environmental impact of the production of beef through lowered land and water use and lower methane emissions. Additionally, IVM can be developed to a point where it is cheaper and quicker than the traditional method of beef production. There are also fewer concerns about animal welfare with IVM, and the dangers that industrial farming presents to workers (accidents, chemical exposure) would be reduced.
However, opponents of the product claim it might actually put more stress on the environment through its carbon emissions. They also point out that a new regulatory framework might need to be created within the FDA or USDA to oversee production of this new meat product. Beyond these concerns, opponents say IVM just doesn’t taste as good as traditional beef because of its lack of fat, a key component in the flavor of beef.
Another major issue IVM opponents take with the process is the use of fetal bovine serum (FBS). FBS is derived from the blood of the fetus of a slaughtered pregnant cow and is then refined so stem cells can be grown on it.
Many students in the audience found this fact disturbing and disgusting. One student expressed his concern about the ratio of inputs to outputs in the culturing of meat. He pointed out that humans can’t obtain food from nothing, but that he didn’t think IVM would be sustainable if FBS continues to be used. Other students agreed.
“I didn’t know about the whole [FBS use]. I wasn’t sure if it was just like they took one cell and then they grew it, but once I found that out, I don’t think I’d [try IVM],” fourth-semester chemical engineering major Heather Boucher said.
Benjamin stressed that there is still little research about IVM. While many of the foods in our diet have evolved over time, the first IVM burger was created in 2013, and there’s only been six years of research between then and now. Researchers and manufacturers continue to doggedly pursue research and development of IVM because they sense a big market for it as a solution to problems like meat scarcity and climate change.
“There is much that we don’t know at this point because of the complexity of the process in order to scale up has presented certain difficulties, which companies are now attempting to overcome because they sense the largeness of this market,” Benjamin said.
After discussing the pros and cons of motherless meat, Benjamin asked if students would try it. About 40 percent of students in the room raised their hands to express their willingness to try IVM.
“I raised my hand for that, yeah,” fourth-semester music major Alvin Khoxayo said. “I said that if it was just a little piece of it at the supermarket that they had out for a taste test, I’d want to taste it, but I don’t think I would support my family on it just yet.”
Other students, like Boucher (who is a vegan), seemed more hesitant to try it or to release it on the market. Boucher said that for those who are vegan, there are fine alternatives to any sort of meat.
“Also, too, I’ve had the Beyond Meat burgers and all those which are plant-based and those taste really good, so I’d rather eat those,” Boucher said.
Either way, Benjamin provided some meat to muse over in the discussion of sustainable food systems.
Stephanie Santillo is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.