Nobody asked me, but I think I’m still straddling the fence on cellular agriculture

Shilo Zylbergold | Best Medicine

Will feeding the planet mean getting on board the cellular agriculture bus? - Shilo Zylbergold

The year was 2013. There are a number of reasons you might remember this particular year. Maybe it was because of tragic events such as the death of Nelson Mandela or the Boston Marathon bombing. Perhaps it was something more upbeat like the birth of Prince George to Prince William and Princess Kate.

What you have probably overlooked is an earth- shattering, history-making occurrence that may indeed reshape the future of humanity. For it was on March 5, 2013, that the first lab grown burger was cooked and tasted on live television in London, England. That’s right; Peter Verstrate and Mark Post, the cofounders of the Dutch cultured meat company, Mosa Meat, pioneered a whole new age for food production. Let’s ignore, for now, that the burger was constructed from over 20,000 thin strands of muscle tissue, cost more than $325,000 to develop, and needed two full years to produce (and you think your grocery bill is high and the service is slow). The point is that no longer would farmed livestock be the sole source for that steak sizzling on your barbeque grill. The dawn of cultivated laboratory meat was now upon us.

Much has happened since that historic day when cellular agriculture, or Frankenfood as some detractors refer to it, made its entrance onto the epicurean dinner table. In a sense, food scientists have eliminated the cow, pig, or chicken from the production of meat and replaced them with test tubes and Petri dishes. Now, we seem to be able to go right from the animal cell to the packaged meat without ever having to go through the actual living animal. Talk about cutting out the middleman!

Apparently, you can have your meat and eat it too without a stop at the slaughterhouse. Imagine it resembling a high school biology lab class except much larger in scale. Or perhaps, imagine something resembling making homemade yogurt or using sourdough starter.

How is it done? Scientists start with a critical number of animal stem cells which are also known as building block cells. These are bathed in a liquid which is loaded with nutrients that will make the cells grow and duplicate. When the time is right, they are put into a giant bioreactor where they are allowed to replicate. What results is a great number of unstructured muscle and fat cells which are then shaped into familiar meat-like masses that are made to look like steak or chicken nuggets. Soy protein, gelatin, and other substances are usually added to this cellular spam to give it a recognizable structure. The process takes between two to eight weeks depending on what kind of meat is being cultivated.

If this trend continues to take off, soon the planet’s feed lots and slaughterhouses will be replaced by cultivated meat factories. That old advertising question of “Where’s the beef?” will be answered synthetically and meal specials like surf and turf will be replaced by cultured laborghini-burgers, smoked mockeye salmon, shamburgers, hoax beef, and labster bisque. Even now, the industry is growing, … well … like microbes in a laboratory, with over twenty new corporations being established in Europe alone. Among these, are Dutch owned Mosa Meat and Meatable, Biotech Foods in Spain, and Israel’s Future Meat. Singapore’s Eat Just has become the first country in Asia to have sales of cultivated meat approved by its food regulations and is now marketing chicken nuggets that are manufactured in the U.S. by Upside Foods. Although two companies in America have been approved to sell the product, so far none in Canada have followed suit.

Detractors of cellular agriculture argue that cultivated meat supporters can promote the product til the cows come home, but the unnaturalness of what ends up on your plate can only be perceived as disgusting to both meat eaters and vegetarians alike.

Wait a minute, answer the proponents of Frankenfood. Just hold your horses. Cultivated meat is humankind’s chance to feed a crowded planet without causing environmental disaster. This is our chance to change the way we eat. This is how we can end hunger and famine. Think about it. Feedlots and slaughterhouses are environmentally unfriendly. Large scale cattle production leads to mass deforestation and loss of biodiversity. The high volume of methane, a major byproduct of animal husbandry, creates 30 times more greenhouse effect than does carbon dioxide. In addition, the main energy needed for cultivating meat is electricity, which is much preferable to troublesome and stinky methane. Even the production of lab cultivated fish is far superior and economical to fish farming because so much less heat is needed for maximum efficiency.

Wait, there’s more. If people are worried about cultured meat being unnatural, how natural is much of the meat that we buy in our supermarkets? Much of conventional meat production comes hand in hand (or should we say hoof in hoof) with growth hormones, antibiotics, inhumane living conditions, demand for unsustainable amounts of water, and the increased chance of future pandemics caused by the crossover of viruses and bacteria from livestock to humans. Furthermore, cutting down on the antibiotic treatment of livestock would also lessen the growing crisis of bacteria resistance to antibiotics.

Some claim that the transition of conventional meat production to cultivated meat would not only reduce methane emissions, but also decrease land and water use by 95 per cent. So what’s the hold up? Why aren’t we all jumping on the Frankenfood bandwagon? After all, many of us have already made the jump to plant-based meat substitutes such as tofu, tempeh, veggie burgers, tofurkey, and chickpea cordon bleu. How much of a leap would it be to think outside the soybean and embrace the test tube?

Nobody asked me, but I think I’m still straddling the fence on cellular agriculture. I’m all for saving the earth and protecting the natural environment, but does it really have to be done by eating somebody’s science project? If I really wanted to eat something truly disgusting, there are a whole slew of jars filled with indeterminate contents sitting at the back of the bottom shelf of my fridge just waiting for me to chow down.


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