Someday our diets will be post-animal

We can't sustain the meat industry for our growing global population

Think about the life of a cow that’s destined to become a steak or burger. Think about the space it needs and the food required to keep it alive. We put a lot of resources into the meat industry because burgers and other meat products are in absurdly high-demand, including in countries that are new to the fast-food burger lifestyle we’re familiar with. That one cow we were thinking about will become enough meat to give McDonalds 30 seconds of burger sales. All that effort to keep this cow healthy just to keep us munching away for half a minute. When you scale this up to think about how much meat we eat in a day, week, or year it becomes difficult to comprehend. And that’s just McDonalds.

The meat industry needs to keep animals somewhere; in the case of cows it’s fields. This means there’s a limit to how many animals we can use for food because we’ll run out of space but that’s hardly the first thing that would run out. The food that we give the cows needs to be grown too, which again takes up space. Even the crops that make the cow’s food will need fertiliser meaning we need lots of cows. This is one of the reasons we can’t all become organic vegans overnight, because we don’t have enough fertiliser or land to make enough crops to feed the world.

We seem to be doing fine for meat right now. If you want some, head to the supermarket and buy some. This won’t last, however, as humans love eating meat and our numbers are increasing almost exponentially. Eventually we won’t have enough animal meat to go round. This isn’t anything to do with being for or against vegetarianism; it’s just going to be practically impossible to have a sustainable meat industry in the future.

We can’t solve this problem by us all becoming vegetarians, because we’ll run into the same problems just in another industry. Besides, the definition of vegetarian will become a bit of a grey area given the most recent attempts to create sustainable meat for the future. Many independent groups of scientists around the world are working to create meat for a world with a post-animal diet. Were not talking about artificial alternatives to meat; we’re talking about real meat but without having to breed, raise, care for, and kill any animals. Arthur C. Clarke was already imagining the situation back in the 1960s when he wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“As a result, food was short in every country; even the United States had meatless days, and widespread famine was predicted within fifteen years, despite heroic efforts to farm the sea and to develop synthetic foods.” – 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke

How to build a steak

What is meat? We can talk about the animal and which part of the body the meat comes from, but it’s better to answer this question with another: what does meat consist of? It’s a complicated question because animal development is complex but most of us are familiar with the fact that meat consists of proteins. There’s nothing intrinsically “animal” about the physical proteins themselves; they’re just huge molecules made from amino acids. If you arrange the acids in a different way you would get a different protein. Scientists are now trying to rebuild animal proteins from scratch, using the same building blocks as the real thing, without using animals at all.

This is a cultured burger. Image © The Modern Agriculture Foundation

If a developing animal can build proteins and even tissues that can be eaten as meat, then maybe we can do the same thing in the lab. Some people call it test tube meat, or in vitro meat, but the best name is probably cultured meat. In 2013, Mark Post let people try his cultured burger and it went down fairly well but it was mostly for publicity rather than an industry breakthrough. Each burger cost £325,000 to make, so it’s early days if it’s going to eventually change the meat industry.

Scientists can’t just shove a bunch of cells together and make it big enough to eat. The meat needs to have the right consistency and texture. The problem here is that animals themselves aren’t just a bunch of cells mushed together. Genes are used when building living things but practically every cell in an animal has the same genes, regardless of whether it’s a heart cell or a brain cell. The difference isn’t what genes a cell has but how they’re used.

As an animal grows up, it goes from a single cell to an entire adult with many complex tissues and organs. To do this, our cells have to build proteins at the right place and time to coordinate with each other and over time to build an ever-changing organism. The complexity of this process is why there’s an entire academic field of developmental biology. The scientists working on cultured meat want to do more than make a bunch of proteins identical to those found in animals; they want to mimic tissue development.

Image © The Modern Agriculture Foundation

If you weren’t already aware of this, you’re probably starting to see why this is such a technical endeavour. The research being carried out for cultured meats is similar to that of regenerative biologists who are trying to grow new limbs and organs for human patients. It’s a tricky business. Imagine you could grow muscle cells from stem cells. It’s all well and good to create muscle cells in the lab for meat products but to make an actual steak you need to replicate the real thing. The muscle cells will die in the lab just as they would in an animal if they aren’t getting enough oxygen from the blood. So blood vessels need to be grown too. And there needs to be blood. What’s pumping the blood? Suddenly the technical challenge becomes very clear. To taste like the real thing they need to be able to grow everything that should be there, even fat.

How do you like your eggs? In a petri dish?

Mark Post is far from alone in the quest to perfect the cultured burger. Others are trying to do the same thing, including the Memphis Meats and the Modern Agriculture Foundation. These organisations are making various efforts including animal-free chicken. It’s not only meat that scientists are trying to culture; there are labs trying to grow animal-free eggs and milk too. Clara Foods dreams of a day when we can eat designer eggs that are better than the real thing but require no animals in their production. Someday you should be able to eat Real Vegan Cheese too.

Things like eggs are relatively easier to recreate than the meat from complex animal tissues. We’ll likely see cultured eggs and milk become mainstream first. But how soon? A lot of startups are showing off their latest progress but don’t for one minute think the supermarkets will be selling cultured meats any time soon. We’re quite far from them being perfect, but we’re even further from them being affordable. It will likely take decades to get to a point where cultured meat is both affordable and delicious.

What becomes of vegetarians?

Vegetarians who don’t like the taste of meat will likely be uninterested in cultured meat products. The whole point is to recreate the real tissues but without animals. However, the vegetarians who avoid meat for moral reasons might find cultured meat more acceptable. After all, there would be no harm to animals and the tissue would have been developed from scratch from building blocks available in plants. When cultured meat becomes readily available, many vegetarians and vegans will likely have to debate what it means to eat cultured meat. As with genetically-modified foods, scaremongering and distrust of science will likely push many away regardless of the facts.

If successful and mainstream, a cultured meat industry would do a lot more good than create enough meat for an increasing global population. The industry could help cut down on the land required; the methane produced that harms our atmosphere; and the pathogens spread by the current meat industry such as bird flu and BSE. Someday we’ll be able to buy a new type of genuine meat that is more sustainable, healthy, and maybe even tasty. But the eggs come first.

Main image © iStock/Olha Rohulya