This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 21, 2005
Test-tube Meat Being Developed
The dinner table was set formally for the featured meal: frog muscle cells grown in petri dishes that had been fashioned into two bioengineered "steaks." Guests were invited to share the coin-sized medallions of jiggly flesh marinated in calvados and fried in garlic and honey. Honours for the unusual dish went to "chef" Oron Catts, artistic director of SymbioticA, a laboratory that explores science through art at the University of Western Australia in Perth. The occasion was an installation titled Disembodied Cuisine, presented in 2003 at L'Art Biotech, an international exhibit in Nantes, France. The art project's objective was to explore "victimless meat consumption," a.k.a. "steaks for non-killers." (At the petri-dish meal, two terrariums with frogs whose lives had been symbolically spared sat off to the side.)
The project was also trying to probe "the apparent uneasiness people feel when someone messes with their food." Imagine how consumers will feel when they realize this isn't just the realm of art projects, and that food scientists are currently studying ways to replace the chickens, pigs and cows on our dinner plates with artificial meat grown in industrial-sized fermentation vats.
Proponents of in vitro-cultured meat production are quick to point to conventional farming's shortcomings. Animals crammed together, they note, incubate diseases such as avian flu and mad cow, both human health threats. Then there's the environmental question of what to do with all that effluent from livestock, as well as issues of animal cruelty. While the test-tube pork chop is perhaps 15 years in the future, in vitro-processed meat for chicken nuggets, hot dogs, sausages or hamburgers is well within reach, says Jason Matheny, an agricultural policy scientist at the University of Maryland. "Most people don't care enough about where their meat comes from or how it's ultimately produced," he says. "What they want is something that is healthy, tastes good and is relatively cheap."
Matheny envisions meat factories housing 10,000-litre tanks with built-in stirrers. Muscle cells would likely have to be sprayed onto plastic sheets (they require something to latch onto, otherwise they will not multiply), which would then be lowered into so-called bioreactors filled with, perhaps, a mushroom- or soybean-based nutrient broth. There, the cells would feed, divide in two, and repeat the process until harvested.
Some of the most advanced work in this area is being conducted in the Netherlands by Henk Haagsman, professor of meat science at Utrecht University. Together with researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology and the University of Amsterdam, Haagsman wants to prove, within four years, that it is indeed possible to grow industrial quantities of porcine cells destined for our grocery shelves. Work started last April, with more than $6 million in funding provided by, among others, Holland's department of economic affairs and Dutch sausage maker Stegeman, a division of Chicago-based Sara Lee Corp. Any consumer reluctance, says Haagsman, can be overcome by a frank public airing of the issue's pros and cons. "There was a lot of opposition to genetically modified plant foods," he says. "Now, people just eat them."
When Paul Kosnik, vice-president of engineering at Tissue Genesis Inc. in Honolulu, was at the University of Michigan in the late 1990s, he co-invented what he describes as today's leading technique for growing muscle tissue. Kosnik thinks the Dutch effort at culturing meat has a good chance of succeeding, but that the method will be prohibitively expensive and may initially only be used in space travel. "Cows turn grass and water into meat extremely efficiently," Kosnik says. "We operate at only a very small fraction of the efficiency at which nature does."
Nature, for the moment, also still tastes better. In Catts's art experiment, the fibrous material on which the frog cells had been grown did not biodegrade as expected. Catts says he wasn't surprised that some people spat out their "steak." "The end result," he says, "was eating something more like jelly on fabric."
See also BIOTECHNOLOGY.
Maclean's November 21, 2005