The lab production of meat without the need of slaughtering animals is no longer science fiction and could be producing “green” hamburgers in less than ten years according to the list of Time Magazine fifty main inventions of the year.
“Fermented meat” elaborated from stem cells or chicken, lamb or swine leg muscles is a “green” alternative “healthier and less contaminating” containing the same percentage of proteins than natural meats, according to its sponsors. Production could even be controlled to avoid such diseases as “mad cow”, chicken flu and a “light meat” should not be discarded. “Maybe even hamburgers that prevent heart conditions”, said Jason Matheny from New Harvest, a non profit organization with a world wide net working on the issue.
The first argument to counter those who are suspicious of what does not come from the farm or the fields is that nowadays most of what is consumed by humans comes from laboratories, and is processed. Such is the case with milk, cheese or the classic chicken nuggets, so popular among children. As to possible secondary effects of these “lab meats” on human health, “we are not aware of any risks”, said Matheny.
The idea of different meats without the cost of living beings is something that goes well beyond the demands from animal protection organizations. It could also help with the medium term non sustainability of livestock breeding that is devastating the Amazon basin and causing climate change, as was exposed by a FAO report, Livestock's Long Shadow.
Allegedly, the secret formula is a “biomedical lab soup” made up of nutrients and micro organisms which theoretically could feed the whole world population.
So far, the first experiences have been with fillet strips of pork, one centimetre wide, that can be stretched and impregnated with proteins. “If technology continues to advance at the current rate, in five to ten years” these fillet strips could substitute meat with sufficient bite-firmness and similar flavour to that of a traditional stake.
But high costs remain the main barrier: “We need automatic systems, more efficiency, less labour and cheaper ingredients because currently they originate in expensive bio-medical research”, said Matheny.
The US space agency, NASA was a pioneer in this matter when seeking to provide a better diet to astronauts; but costs soared, funds were insufficient and it all ended in a vegetarian catering option. However, the Dutch Government and research institutions in the US, Japan, Australia and Scandinavian countries have continued experimenting as have the powerful US bio-technology corporations, according to the head of New Harvest.
In the US, supermarkets are already offering vegetarian consumers green barbeque cutlets and hamburgers made out of tofu or soy and with the right flavour. However, the fermented meat would in effect be an extraordinary diet revolution, although it is still extremely expensive. The process with current technology means each hamburger has a cost close to one million US dollars, admitted Matheny.