"Petri pork." "Test-tube burgers." "Victimless meat." All these tongue-in-cheek terms describe in vitro or cultured meat grown in a laboratory. While it sounds like the stuff of science fiction, researchers have been working to make cultured meat a reality since 1995 when NASA scientists investigated it as a way to feed astronauts on lengthy space missions.
Today, cultured meat is gaining attention as a potential solution to animal cruelty, pollution and hunger, and scientists from the Netherlands to Brazil are researching ways to bring cultured meat to our kitchens.
Growing tissue in vitro as a food source is akin to growing an organ for human transplant. Stem cells are sourced from an adult animal or from self-renewing cell lines. Scientists stimulate the stem cells to differentiate as mature cell types and place them into a three-dimensional tissue support, sometimes described as "scaffolding." As the tissues develop, they undergo conditioning that mimics an animal's muscle development.
In vitro meat production has the support of many environmentalists and animal rights activists, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which offered a $1 million reward for the first laboratory to use chicken cells to create in vitro meat, if the product could be evaluated by PETA's judges by January 1. While it may seem that PETA — a group known for vehemently supporting veganism — would give its blessing to any sort of meat production, according to PETA President Ingrid Newkirk, its main goal is to reduce animal suffering. "Americans eat 1 million chickens an hour," says Newkirk. "[In vitro meat] is both practical and pragmatic. We can't afford to look at this from a purist's standpoint. We need to reduce animal suffering now."
In addition to offering the $1 million reward, PETA provided funding to the University of Missouri to hire Nicholas Genovese, PhD, a visiting scholar conducting cultured meat research.
Genovese believes cultured meat has the potential to alleviate environmental woes by reducing meat processing's drain on freshwater, energy and land resources. Greenhouse gas emissions caused by livestock digestion would also be eliminated. Because cultured meat doesn't require expansive pastureland, it could be produced in urban areas close to the greatest consumer demand, thus reducing transportation costs and pollution.
"Internationally, cultured meat technology would have the largest direct impact in China and other nations where meat consumption is on the rise, some of which rely on overseas feedstock imports to support domestic livestock production," says Genovese.
Experts believe that cultured meat could also quell future food crises. Theoretically, cultured meat could be significantly less expensive than meat from an animal, making it a viable protein source for consumers at almost all economic levels. Currently, corn, soy and other feedstock suitable for human consumption are fed to animals raised for slaughter. These crops, or the resources used to grow and harvest them, could be reallocated to raise produce used to feed the hungry.
Shoppers won't see "petri pork" or "pseudo steak" on grocery store shelves quite yet, though. There is still a long way to go to make cultured meat palatable and cost-competitive with today's meat. Even then, it remains to be seen whether or not consumers will bite.