Can biotech and biofuels relieve pressure on water, land, food and fuel by revolutionizing meat production?
In our survey this week of “8 Bio-Based Technologies for 2050“, one sector that fell outside our focus on biofuels – but has important consequences for the production of bio-based products, is the emerging technology platform for cultured meat, also known as in vitro meat production.
These are meat products that are grown using tissue culture technologies, in the lab, as opposed to being grown via the traditional system of animal raising and slaughter. Also, milk and cheese products that are currently provided by the dairy industry.
You might recall that TIME identified in vitro meat as one of the 50 top breakthrough ideas of 2009. The good news is that the field is progressing rapidly.
Why does meat culturing matter?
Why is this important for biofuels, or for the concerned citizen, or even your friendly neighborhood vegan? Well, four reasons come to mind.
First, cultured meat offers an end-around to the ethical dilemma in raising animals for slaughter and meat consumption.
Second, consider the prospect that cultured meat and dairy offers, in a world that is consuming a lot more protein, per capita, each year. It’s a way to produce product for the rising demand without putting added pressure on land, water, greenhouse gas emission or the grain supply required to provide animal feed.
For all the emphasis on the resource intensity of, say, ethanol, the resources for animal raising – primarily cattle, chicken, pork and fish – are vastly greater. In fact, the “food vs fuel” debate in the United States was, based on the actual usage patterns of dent field corn, more about feed vs fuel.
Third, a cultured meat industry requires both energy and nutrients, both of which can be supplied through bio-based products and biofuels.
Fourth, with some genetic engineering, it is possible to develop meat products with superior health characteristics, such as fats which offer all the flavor and half the risks.
Latest in R&D
All of the above are reasons to be intrigued by a meeting which took place in Sweden last week amongst a group of 25 international scientists focused on the field – including experts in tissue engineering, stem cells, food technology, environmental science, ethics, social science and economists.
The scientists have begun some targeted outreach to increase interest in the field. As Julie Gold, associate professor in biological physics at Chalmers, and one of the convenors of the workshop put it: “To date, there are only limited dedicated research activities in cultured meat. To move forward, research activities have to increase substantially.”
The biofuels connection
At the meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden, arranged by Chalmers University of Technology and the European Science Foundation, the group reviewed technology components are now coming into place in order to realize the concept of cultured meat. This includes a cell source that is possible to use, several alternative processes to turn these cells into muscle cells for meat, and nutrients free of animal components which can be produced from sunlight and carbon dioxide.
The group agreed last week on a general principle that the nutrients for growing the cells for meat must be produced with renewable energy and without animal products. The best source for this, they concluded, is the use of a photosynthetic organism, such as as cyanobacteria.
Bottom line for biofuels: a provider of energy and nutrients and for that, think advanced biofuels and in particular the micro crop technologies based on algae and cyanobacteria. Also, there’s a potential boost for companies like Solazyme that are pioneering the development of alternatives to traditional fatso and oils used in flavoring.
The water, land and emissions intensity of meat and dairy
There are reasons to support such research – the reduction of pressure on land use alone, in light of the increasing focus on the use of land for the production of biofuels, is a reason to intensify exploration of the opportunities. Not to mention the ethical opportunities, to move beyond the feedlot and animal slaughter as a primary method for meat production.
But there’s the water problem, too. While we identified a shift to saline or brackish water as a major technology shift expected for biofuels over the next 40 years, no such shift to plentiful salty water is expected or even on the drawing board for, say, raising cattle. For animals, as with us, we need freshwater, or expensive water purification.
A recent survey of meat culturing by M. Betti Datar of the University of Alberta, published in Innovative Food Science and Emerging Technologies 11 (and available here ) found that “The production of beef requires 15 500 m3/ton of water, while chicken requires 3918m3/ton (Hoekstra & Chapagain, 2007) and with a growing population and great proportion of which facing starvation, it no longer makes sense to contribute staple crops toward inefficient meat production, where 1 kg poultry, pork and beef requires 2 kg, 4 kg and 7 kg of grain, respectively (Rosegrant, Leach, & Gerpacio, 1999).”
Then, there’s the deforestation problem, too. Dater wrote that “World meat production at present is contributing between 15% and 24% of total current greenhouse gas emissions; a great proportion of this percentage is due to deforestation to create grazing land (Steinfeld et al., 2006).”
So, what exactly happens in in-vitro meat culturing? Generally, the approach isn’t entirely different from culturing say, yogurt. In this case, muscle cells, called myoblasts or myosatellite cells, are grown on a “scaffolding” (such as collagen beads) inside a bioreactor filled with a nutrient bath. There’s not much incredibly new science in making cells grow and fuse together in a bioreactor.
For now, the likely markets are the processed meat world of ground beef, chicken, or turkey – and other processed meat products such as sausage or hot dogs.
A Long March towards Viability
This is not a tomorrow technology, nor one for the day after tomorrow, but it’s on the horizon. The economics have to come way, way down. At the lab scale, its about $2 million per pound – though Datti’s 2009 survey found that, at scale, current technology could bring that production cost down to $3500 per tonne, or around $1.59 per pound, which brings it close to, if not quite at, parity wholesale cost with some of the lower grade beef products.
New techniques will have to be developed to bring the cost down. But as Dater observes, “Fiala (2008) calculates the amount of total meat consumed worldwide in 2030 to be 72% higher than that consumed in 2000 following current consumption patterns.”
With such intense growth, along with the intense growth in energy needs we surveyed in “8 Bio-Based Technologies for 2050″ – not to mention our need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, meat and dairy culturing are a technology platform that the R&D community would do del to get behind, and the broader public should keep a hopeful eye on.