in Isha Datar – In Singapore, they eat chicken nuggets made with chickens that have never been killed. How is it possible? Thanks to the so-called “cellular agriculture”.
For ten years, I’ve been an advocate of lab-grown meat. For me, products from cells rather than animals (chicken nuggets, hamburgers, sausages) are not just fast food products, but our ticket to a new food system.
Here’s how it works: Instead of raising a whole sentient chicken, with beak and feathers, we grow meat directly from muscle cells. We do a small biopsy on a live animal and then we extract the cells that interest us, probably muscle cells, but also fat or connective tissue.
Now, muscle cells love to attach themselves to surfaces. It helps them develop and extend into the long muscle fibers we all know. We can then build a scaffold on which the cells can adhere. Then, of course, we need to feed the cells. Thus, we immerse them in a liquid that contains all the nutrients these cells need to grow and divide: carbohydrates, amino acids, growth factors and much more. Finally, the cells on the scaffold immersed in the liquid grow inside a bioreactor, a kind of large stainless steel tank that resembles, even in size, a plant for the production of beer. The bioreactor maintains the constant environment that the cells need to thrive. Stabilizes the temperature, pressure, inflow, outflow, etc. After the cells have had the opportunity to proliferate, differentiate and mature into muscle fibers, we can collect the cells and tissues and turn them into a kibble, a kibble that from the beginning was free of bones and skin and made entirely of White meat.
Now, this would not only be better for chickens, cows and pigs and the people who raise them, slaughter and process their meat, but also for the whole world. Think about it. Early estimates of the potential of cultured meat indicate that cultured meat would require 99% less soil, 96% less water and produce 96% less greenhouse gas emissions. These are still first hypothetical estimates, but think about how much potential this technology has. If it works, we will have a new livelihood strategy, new tools for producing food. It wouldn’t just be a new product category. I think it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to have a second chance to farm, make things better and learn from our mistakes.
What do I mean by “errors”? True, this food system keeps billions of people alive. But look what happened to the chickens in just 50 years. By simply choosing which two chickens to mate, the chickens went from a 1957 bird, to a chicken. broiler (2005).
Broilers have been optimized for meat production so much that they need to be slaughtered for 6 to 8 weeks, because if they live beyond this time, their legs will not be able to support the body. A real suffering.
And the farms? Today, the animals are so crowded that the risk of antibiotic resistance and epidemic viruses is at an all-time high. Did you know that 2018 marked the beginning of the biggest pandemic in farm animals? African swine fever is estimated to have killed one in four pigs already. One in four pigs, that is hundreds of millions of pigs destined for our diet have been lost. Animal farming is simply too big not to fail.
What about climate change? Did you know that our global herd of farm animals is a major cause and victim of climate change at the same time? On the one hand, cows alone produce 9% of total greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, climate chaos is seeing more and more cases of thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of animals dying overnight in storms, floods and fires. Agriculture will always be at the mercy of Mother Nature, but climate change is already rewriting the rules of agriculture. We need an alternative.
Finally, there is our planet, which we devote to feeding cows, pigs and chickens more than we do for everything else. One third of the planet, about 27%, roughly equivalent to all of North and South America combined, is used for livestock farming. Now, this could all change with cellular farming. Remember when I said it would take 99% less soil to produce cultured meat than beef? Think about it: farming cannot be verticalized, but cellular agriculture can. If we could cut the land used by half, or even a quarter, and meet the world’s demand for protein, imagine what we could do with the rest. Suddenly, it becomes possible to choose to do things like restore the Amazon rainforest, which we clear for livestock, or restore ecosystems colonized by cows, corn and soy. Or return the stolen lands to indigenous peoples, who will finally be able to reclaim the culinary tradition of their ancestors.
The United Nations says we will have to restore nature on land the size of China if we are to achieve climate resilience. Cellular agriculture offers this possibility. Not only can we clear the soil for restoration, but we can also recreate the products we know and love with very few emissions. By growing cells, we can proactively envision agriculture for a world where the climate has changed.
And we’re not just talking about meat. By designing biology, in theory, we can grow anything that comes from plants or animals from cells. Vanilla does not have to be grown in the rainforest. Egg whites can be made without the yolk. Foie gras can be obtained without mistreating the geese. Leather and silk must not be made from the back of an animal or from the home of the silkworm. We already consume cellular agriculture products every day, but only in very small quantities. Several vitamins, flavors and enzymes are already produced in the laboratory. For example, rennet, which is the set of enzymes used to transform milk into curds and whey for the production of cheeses, was obtained from the lining of the calves’ abomasum. In 1990, a synthetic version was put on the market, a version of the key enzyme, chymosin. And today, just thirty years later, 90% of the rennet used to make cheese comes from bioreactors rather than from calves.
Imagine what could happen if we expanded from these small volumes of fine products, like rennet, to products like milk. And it’s about to begin. Today, you can buy ice cream, a real milk ice cream, made from cell culture. It is cow’s milk not made by a cow, but by a computer. The whey protein gene was searched for in an open source database, printed and inserted into the DNA of an organism called “trichoderma”. As in brewing, where yeast is fed with sugar to ferment alcohol in a fermenter, this modified trichoderma is fed with sugar to get whey protein, which we can put in yogurt, spread cheese and in ice cream.
I have to admit that perhaps this is the easy part, relatively speaking. We have been modifying microorganisms to make proteins for decades now. Tissue engineering, required for meat production, is a much more recent science. Animal cells are much more demanding than microorganisms. Furthermore, growing a lot of animal cells and achieving three-dimensionality is no easy feat. But we’re getting there.
In 2013, it cost € 250,000 to produce a hamburger. Today, I’ve seen estimates of the price of cultured meat go as low as $ 50 per kilo. That’s one twenty-seven thousandth of what it cost less than ten years ago. And I see the price of cultivated meat go down and that of animal meat go up.
We are still in the early stages of the research and development phase. As science progresses and we reuse culture medium, reduce the cost of growth factors and achieve higher cell density in vitro, the curve will continue to go down. Meanwhile, the price of animal meat is already artificially low due to large subsidies, does not reflect the cost to either public health or the environment, and in a world changed by COVID, African swine fever and climate change, the price of animal flesh can only rise. I think that price parity would be easily achievable if the playing field were evenly matched. On the one hand, we have animal agriculture, which is heavily supported by public funding and the government. On the other hand, we have promising technology, which needs extensive research and development, as well as a lot of infrastructure and training support, but which is left entirely in the hands of the private sector and market forces.
I don’t think any of the beautiful things I have just described, such as the re-naturalization of the Amazon, will happen if we leave this technology solely in the hands of the technological and market forces. There is a real possibility that cellular farming won’t work. And it won’t be because of science, but because we haven’t thought about what ownership or protection of intellectual property should be or administration or politics, the business side of mission-oriented businesses. And we will have to be very careful and aware of what this technology needs to maximize the positive impact it will have on the world.
Animal products are great and it would be hard to find proteins in the plant world that can do what animal proteins do: long, springy cheeses, custard, fluffy meringues, the rich flavors of umami (one of the 5 Japanese flavors) that can be found in meat and seafood. But while animal proteins are terrific, they no longer need to be derived from animals.
We have a long way to go to understand the potential of this technology and it will take ingenuity both in and out of the lab. But think about what we can get in return. We have a chance to initiate a transformation for humanity as great as the shift from hunting to farming some 12,000 years ago. This could be a new era of abundance in so many different ways.
Personally, I am thrilled by food products that I still cannot imagine today, because this is really a new tool for culinary creativity as well. We haven’t seen such a thing since our ancestors discovered fermentation. We could never have looked at a glass of milk before fermenting foods and wishing it was hard, smelly and moldy. We could never have imagined the cheese or the hundreds of varieties of cheeses we have today. Likewise, meat still depends on the body of animals. We still describe it in terms of cuts of meat. But if we grow meat from cells, the limits of what meat can be will totally change. The flesh may be thin and translucent. It could be liquid. It could be crunchy, it could be bubbly. Burgers are the staple, sausages are just a starting point, and kibble is just a small part of what’s possible with cellular farming.
We dream of a bigger and bolder future of nutrition!
TEDx Translated by Maria Rosa Londino – Reviewed by Silvia Monti
Source: Il Blog di Beppe Grillo by beppegrillo.it.
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