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In Vitro Meat as a Sustainable Solution

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The world population is predicted to grow to 10 billion by 2050 with an estimated 48. 6% increase in agriculture production to meet their food demands. Traditional livestock farming which has become highly industrialised today, involves the painful slaughter of millions of animals and contributes to 12. 8% of the total GHG emissions in the EU in addition to land and water degradation. With issues like exhaustive natural resources, animal welfare, global warming and the possibility of food shortage in the future, it is high time to think of a sustainable solution.

The concept of In vitro meat is to extract stem cells called myosatellite cells from the muscle of an animal and plant them in a culture medium leading to its proliferation in a bioreactor. Over a period of 10 weeks, these cells form myotubes which contract to make muscle fibres which can further be processed using common food technologies to create meat. Being ethical, potentially environment friendly and with adequate interest and appropriate regulatory bodies set in charge of it in the EU (Khan, n. d), this technology seems promising. But how will the technology of IVM be able to compete with the established livestock industry?

Despite having positive opinions, there are quite a few social, technical and political challenges to be overcome for the technology to reach the market. IVM is a technology that has been talked about for a long time, with the first cultured meat patent by Willem van Eelan and NASA’s work on Turkey cells since the early 2000’s. On the other hand, animal cloning, another direction of biotechnology, was widely criticised due to the adverse health effects in the clones. With advancements in biotechnology, the biggest breakthrough in the IVM technology happened in 2013, when the first lab-grown beef burger was created by Mark Post and was given positive feedbacks by critics. Using the TIS Framework for IVM, the following actors have been identified: Government bodies such as The European Commission, EFSA, research universities like the Maastricht University, University of Amsterdam, Utrecht and Eindhoven and startups such as Mosa Meats in Netherlands. In 2005, the Dutch Government funded studies in culture medium, generation of muscle cells and development of bioreactors in a few research universities and with fundings from Bell food group of Switzerland and Merck’s M ventures and NGO’S like Cultured Meat Foundation, the European Science foundation, Google, PHW, scientists are working towards making IVM technology a reality.

Other major stakeholders include the dairy and meat sector companies, farmers, animal welfare groups, media, religious groups and the general public whose views determine the social acceptance of this technology. One major hindrance to bring IVM to the market today is cost. Mosa meats created the first burger at the cost of $331, 000 per pound in 2013 and in 2017, Memphis meats of California reduced the price to $2400 per pound of cultured chicken. Although decent progress can be seen in reducing their costs, it is no where close to the price of regular meat. Margaret Mellon from the Union of Concerned Scientists speculates that energy requirements for extensive cultured meat production could be detrimental to the environment although studies by the the university of Amsterdam and Oxford show that this technology could in contrast cut down energy use. Though animal welfare groups like PETA support this technology, there have been concerns regarding the culture medium used in the process. Is it completely cruelty-free? The answer is no, the current growth medium includes fetal calf serum and the process may cause pain to the donor animal but it definitely involves lesser number of animals than slaughter houses. Also, experiments are being conducted to replace the culture medium by plant based substitutes like Ultroser G.

Taste and safety are major concerns for the end consumers. The tested IVM was found to be quite firm than regular meat and Mark Post of Mosa meats is working on adding fat cells to improve its texture. Although the technology promises to cut down negative health effects from the consumption of regular meat like heart diseases, diabetes etc and prevent animal diseases like swine flu from affecting humans by controlling the conditions of growth, people are still apprehensive about it due to possible allergic reactions, contamination risk and the ‘unnaturalness’ aspect associated with it. Since meat is a part of most cultures, consumption of IVM has been a debatable topic in some religions. Although islamic and jewish perspectives suggest that this meat could be considered Halal and Kosher respectively, religious sentiments must be addressed further once the product comes to the market. News media has promoted this technology by covering a TED Talk on it and the live in vitro burger testing at the conference in London in 2013 and social media platforms have conducted online polls to get public opinions. An unfortunate impact of this technology is on the meat and dairy companies and the farmers whose livelihood depends on livestock farming. It is found that 4. 4% of EU GDP, and 8. 3% of total employment in Europe depend on agriculture and farming.

Investments by Cargill and PHW in this technology implies that not all of meat industry is against its growth and a panel discussion that included two farmers in the US in 2017 found that the farmers were looking at the positives of it and understood that it is still in development. In the future, the reclaimed pastures from livestock farming could be used as feed for biofuels or could be converted back to its natural habitats. Government fundings like subsidies or grants could help in R&D and small startups to contribute to this technology. Mark Post expects the cost to come down to €9 for a lab grown hamburger if produced at an industrial level and with further advancements in technologies like genetic engineering and 3D printing it could even become cheaper than regular hamburgers. However, studies show that almost 1450 million people in the world are vegetarians by necessity and such reduction in costs could lead to imbalance in the ecosystem as more people would be able to afford it and eventually it could again result in the industrialisation of highly processed foods. Are we prepared for that? More research will have to take place to understand the needs of the people and predict future market so that this technology becomes socially responsible.

To improve the ethics of the current growth methods, the technology could be subject to the regulations of the Animal Welfare Act and regarding safety of the meat, IVM is now considered as a Novel food under the new Novel food regulation passed in 2015 which means that once it passes the scientific risk assessment by EFSA, it could be offered as food under the condition of proper labelling. Due to the 2013 European Horse meat scandal, food fraud is a concern among the people for which investigators and the EU Food Fraud Network could develop a set of protein trackers to uniquely identify cultured meat. Regulations from Animal Health and Plant Agency may also be considered if the waste from cultured meat is treated as animal by-products. The bioreactors could be subject to environmental and energy regulations it can be said that people can accept such a technology that has the potential to completely change the way we perceive the food we eat by means of trust. Based on RRI, inclusion, personal interaction, responsiveness and third party insurers can help the mutual understanding of the values and motives of the stakeholders. Evidently, the result of one of the surveys on a dutch focus group was that the more the people got to know about cultured meat and its process, the more they were willing to try it. As for the meat sector companies and farmers, Mark Post believes that this technology could create unexpected opportunities for them in the future. Policy makers could provide funds to help these farmers tap opportunities like crop farming for the plant growth medium or other new forms of economic activities.

Being one of the few technologies that can improve the lives of animals and likely handle future food shortages with minimum environmental impact, IVM has a long way to go due to challenges like cost, safety, and taste. It is still a technology in development and requires more awareness and cooperation among stakeholders and further analysis of logistics costs, energy requirements etc. Veganism, one of the most popular lifestyle movements today took years to spread and similar to that, it may take time for people to accept this new technology. It has been estimated that if the entire livestock farming is replaced by cultured meat in the EU, the GHG emissions, land and water use will be reduced by around 95%. With future fundings one can expect cultured meat products in supermarkets by 202. But two questions remain, what if the reclaimed land ends up being used for industrial and housing developments instead? And what if this technology ends up being just an addition to existing livestock industry rather than displacing it?

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