Cultured meat grown in labs could ease world food crisis

Meat grown in laboratories, rather than taken from slaughtered animals, may seem like science fiction, but Winston Churchill predicted in an essay in the 1930s that one day we would be able to create man-made meat products – even if he did think we would get there thirty years ago.

It may have taken scientists longer than Churchill predicted, but researchers are now able to create small amounts of what is called “cultured meat” in laboratory conditions; a branch of biology that could have real implications for solving the ongoing global hunger crisis.

In fact, one of the most successful research teams, lead by Mark Post of Maastricht University, believes that they will have moved on from producing small amounts of cultured meat to creating en entire cultured burger by the end of 2012. Using stem cells taken from an animal – most labs use pigs – scientists are able to grow meat in vitro, although the process has taken years to perfect.

First, the original stem cells have to be converted to muscle cells before they are provided with a biological “scaffold” for the production of further cells, as well as all the food and nutrients they themselves need to multiply and grow. In theory, huge amounts of these cells can be created for use as food for humans; it is even possible to manipulate the cells into more palatable sausage or burger shapes.

And before anyone dismisses the concept of designed food, remember that a manufactured food protein is already on sale in this country and is very popular with vegetarians and those looking to cut fat from their diet. Quorn has been similarly engineered; from soya rather than meat, but the principle remains the same.

But is there any call for manufactured meat or will the science behind the process stay in the laboratory and away from the supermarket shelf? There are several good reasons to suggest that meat grown in a lab could solve many of the major problems caused by the food industry, though researchers would always have to battle public opinion; the problems caused by GM foods in the past have left many consumers unwilling to buy “Frankenstein foods”.

The meat industry is one of the environmentally damaging; contributing to pollution, deforestation and soil erosion. There is every reason to believe that manufacturing food products within the confines of a laboratory or factory would reduce this impact significantly; an impact which sees 20% of global greenhouse gases originate in the meat production industry.

Western consumers are eating more meat than ever, increasing the demands that are made on the environment by farmers and food companies as they try to keep up. Every year, the average Briton eats over 80kg of meat according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, consisting of 33 chickens, an entire pig, 75% of a sheep and 20% of a cow.

The FAO believes the problem will only get worse, with their analysts predicting that meat consumption will double over the next forty years. This would cause even more environmental damage, increasing the amount of land needed for agriculture and, of course, doubling greenhouse gas emissions too. Analysis of “cultured meat” suggests that its environmental impact will be much less than current farming methods.

There are other reasons why cultured meat could be the future as far as our eating habits are concerned; there is evidence that it is healthier than “real” meat; it could protect endangered species in some parts of the world by providing a cheap alternative food source; and, of course, it could feed those affected by famine and starvation, whose own animals have died because of drought or disease.

Early tests suggest that, like Quorn, cultured meat does not really have its own taste, but instead takes on the qualities of ingredients that it has been exposed with. These ingredients could be added at the cooking stage or long before, in the laboratory itself, to create meat flavoured with herbs, spices and other foodstuffs.