Will Lab-Grown Meat Fix Our Food System?

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perfect-breakfast-sandwich-1_ErinPhranerPhotographed By Erin Phraner.
Of the many reasons people have for choosing not to eat meat, some are easier to question than others. For example, there's little scientific proof to back up the claim that "humans were not built to eat meat," or even that a plant-based diet is always more nutritionally sound than an omnivorous one. Of course, it's hard to argue with the idea that eating meat involves some questionable ethics, especially in our age of factory farming. And, even when animals are raised under humane conditions, there's always the part where that chicken/pig/cow/cute-little-lamb has to meet its maker before it shows up on your plate.

But, what if you could cut out that one painful step of the process? What if your Angus Beef cheeseburger was never even a cow at all?

Scientists have had the ability to create "cultured meat" (tissue grown in a lab from stem cells) for decades. But, as the technology has quickly become more and more streamlined and readily available, the idea of actually using this method to create meat for human consumption has veered away from novelty and entered the realm of reality. Just last year, researchers in the Netherlands created the first lab-grown hamburger. Since then, scientists have been working to create a future based around meat sources that are, by nature, cruelty-free and sustainable.

In a new paper published in the journal Trends in Biotechnology, researchers from Wageningen University in The Netherlands discuss what such a future might feasibly look like. They note that technology now allows us, in theory at least, to grow any part of any animal (from fish eggs to chicken breast to pork belly) in vitro — as long as we have the proper stem cells at the beginning of the process. The scientists recommend establishing a sort of "bank" that would keep a stock of cells for each meat product, so producers can draw from it when they need new cells (each stem cell has a limited number of uses before its genes begin to mutate). Another technical challenge, the authors say, is achieving a form and texture that closely resembles real-live meat products.

Still, the researchers assert that we're not too far off from "village-scale" meat production, which could allow communities to shift their consumption habits away from livestock and focus on growing their own meat. Of course, the cost of producing meat this way is not yet cheap enough to compete with conventional methods, especially in industrialized countries like ours where the meat industry (and government regulations) have rigged the system toward cheap meat that's raised and slaughtered inhumanely. Without a doubt, many structural changes would be required before we could move toward and embrace in vitro meat products. But, we can't help but be excited about the possibility of a petri-dish-based food future. (Science Daily)