Written by Jessica Joseph, Ph.D. Candidate
As mentioned in our previous article, the biotechnology industry can be broken down into color categories based on the techniques or products involved in that sector. For example, blue biotechnology includes practices utilizing ocean resources, whereas red biotechnology is related to pharmaceutical products or biomedical engineering. Yellow biotechnology involves the use of bio-engineering to make food. A classic example of yellow biotech’s adaption of natural resources for our palates is brewing beer—harnessing the natural yeast fermentation process to fuel college fraternities and connoisseurs alike.
A current hot topic within the food industry and culture, and therefore yellow biotech, is sustainability. It is well known that the meat industry,in particular, has a drastic, and pervasive, effect on local and global environments1. This damaging effect results from resource diversion used to create farms, as well as the subsequent byproducts and run off from their existence2. Deforestation, clean water usage, and heavy feed requirements are necessary to raise the livestock, while antibiotics, pesticides, animal waste, and hormones directly pollute land and water to maintain them. The meat industry overall is responsible for up to 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, with no sign of slowing down3. Despite the implications for both human health and the environment, meat demand is increasing even as our natural resources are diminishing.
However, from great demand comes great potential. Within the yellow biotech sector, biologists and foodies are rising to the challenge. One exciting company, founded by Dr. Mark Post, uses in vitro cell culture techniques on adult cow stem cells to manufacture bovine muscle tissue—aka hamburger meat. The end result lowers land use by up to 99%, water use by 96%, and greenhouse gas emissions by 96% when compared to other animal meat products4. Dr. Post conducted this research at Maastricht University, Netherlands, and live aired the first tasting of his “test tube meat” made up of over 20,000 hand-cultured muscle strands in August, 2013. Taste testers noted the lack of fat or juiciness, but gave full points for the mouth feel and definitively preferred the in vitro meat to a vegetable-based substitute.
Since then, Dr. Post has taken his technology towards the market with his company, MosaMeat. The cost of the first hamburger was a daunting €250,000 (over $311,000). According to the company however, many of these costs were due to standard academic laboratory fees and the overall cost of operating at such a small scale. Ideally, this could be remedied by scaling up production and further refining their growth process. Considering the company plans to go global to help fill the hunger gap, achieving efficiencies of scale is very much a part of their long-term plans. Still, the company has a few things to work out moving forward on the science end. The current culture system requires fetal bovine serum to grow the cells into functional muscle units. Although this is a common supplement used daily in cell culture labs, for a company intent on using as minimal animal products with the smallest environmental impact possible, the question remains if a synthetic serum might be able to take its place.
Overall, MosaMeat and other in vitro meat companies show huge potential and have momentum on their side. With the current rate of research and initial progress shown, both environmentalists and animal lovers, as well as meat lovers, hope to soon put a cheap, sustainable hamburger on the table, without the costs to the animals or environment.
To see where in vitro meat might take us in the future, check out this website for Bistro In Vitro. While none of the menu is available as of today, they show there’s no limit to the possibilities that this new technology could bring—and that it may be closer to your menu than you think.
- Herrero, M. et al. Biomass use, production, feed efficiencies, and greenhouse gas emissions from global livestock systems. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 110, 20888–20893 (2013).
- Scheer, R. & Moss, D. How Does Meat in the Diet Take an Environmental Toll? Scientific American 1 (2011). https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/meat-and-environment/
- Fiala, N. Meeting the demand: An estimation of potential future greenhouse gas emissions from meat production. Ecol. Econ. 67, 412–419 (2008).
- Tuomisto, H. L., Ellis, M. J. & Haastrup, P. Environmental impacts of cultured meat : alternative production scenarios. Environ. Sci. Technol. 14044, 6117–6123 (2014).