In 1932, Winston Churchill, appalled by the leftover bones and gristle crowding his dinner plate, predicted that in 50 years "we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium." It's taken longer than that, but at the dawn of the 21st century we're finally closing in on tasty and eerily healthy meat grown by scientists instead of Old MacDonald.
"It's been a thought problem for scientists for decades," says Jason Matheny, director of New Harvest
, a nonprofit organization devoted to global efforts to produce cultured meat. With meat consumption in heavily populated countries like China and India multiplying every decade, the environmental complications resulting from industrial meat production have reached critical mass.
"Meat is now recognized as the leading contributor to global warming," says Matheny, pointing out that meat production creates more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector. Additionally, he says, the meat industry is responsible for more than 2 million cardiovascular-related deaths annually, pathogenic contagions such as avian flu and widespread water pollution due to farm animal runoff. With in vitro meat, Matheny asserts, we could mitigate all these problems, in addition to saving the lives of more than 60 billion animals per year.
Coming to the rescue is a dedicated consortium of international scientists, particularly a research group funded by the Dutch government, who have made dramatic progress toward the production of in vitro meat. Although still mostly on the theoretical level, the process is simple: Cells taken from a farm animal are multiplied in a nutrient-rich stew, then stretched or stacked until the proper bulk and texture is achieved. The results can be formed into boneless, processed meat such as sausage, hamburger or chicken nuggets. In addition to the other benefits, "you could produce beef with the fat content of salmon or avocado," says Matheny, who estimates that once the high cost of creating cultured meat is lowered, the product could be in supermarket coolers within five to 10 years.
Still, the road to cultured chicken nuggets faces obstacles. "There are lots of technical challenges," Matheny says. "But those all appear to be solvable. The biggest challenge is one of marketing. There's a yuck factor with the idea of producing cultured meat in a metal tank." Many foods we take for granted are bioprocessed, including yogurt, cheese and fermented drinks. With the health of the world at stake, coming to terms with cultured meats is the logical next step, Matheny says. "If we shifted to cultured meat," says Matheny, "it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than everybody trading in their cars and trucks for bicycles."
With the efforts of organizations such as New Harvest, the term "mystery meat" may soon shift from a negative to a positive connotation. Squalid industrial animal farms would become relics of the past, and land, water and grain could be put to other uses. Says Matheny: "In principle, one could produce the entire meat supply from a few cells harvested from animals that don't even need to be killed."