By Glenda Kwek
‘Pain-free meat’: how synthetic sausages could be on our plates in six months
Pig cells + horse foetal serum = synthetic sausage. That’s the formula for growing meat in a Petri dish.
And scientists said the world’s first lab-grown sausage – or “pain-free meat” – could be just six months away.
Today, almost 1 billion people are undernourished, the World Bank said. In the Horn of Africa, more than 12 million people in five countries face starvation.
And as the world’s population hits 7 billion at the end of next month and 9.3 billion by 2050, according to United Nations’ projections, the need for additional food sources will become more pressing.
So can synthetic food grown from cells in a laboratory help to tackle world hunger? Will eating what has been dubbed “meat without slaughter” help the environment, by putting less strain on it than traditional farming and food processing methods?
Mass producing meat in a lab
Growing meat in a lab is not new – with tissue engineering already used for medical purposes, but creating synthetic food on a large scale is still in its early stages.
Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, who is creating the sausages in his laboratory by feeding pig stem cells with horse foetal serum, hopes to take on cow cells next.
“I’m hopeful we can have a hamburger in a year,” he told New Scientist.
He acknowledges the muscle-like pig cell strips he has created – 2.5 centimetres long and 0.7 centimetres wide – by feeding pig stem cells with horse foetal serum, do not look very appetising.
“It’s white because there’s no blood in it, and very little myoglobin, the iron-bearing protein,” he told New Scientist.
“We are looking at ways to build up the myoglobin content to give it colour.”
And he has not sampled them either, as strict rules prevent the scientists from eating tissue grown in a lab.
But he and his colleagues – who met at an “in-vitro meat” conference in Sweden last month – believe these synthetic foods would eventually meet the world’s demand for more meat and also have a light environmental footprint.
Food security expert Julian Cribb thinks lab-grown food could give Australia a “great opportunity” to get into the bio-food market – especially since it is geographically near Asia’s mega-cities.
“We are growing cities of 30 to 40 million – Jakarta, Shanghai – gigantic cities, with almost no internal food production capacity. Those cities are horribly vulnerable to shortages … and [that’s where] these new foods will come in.”
Animal rights campaigners agree. PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, put up a $US1 million reward in 2008 for the first commercially viable synthetic meat before next year. And Voiceless, an Australian animal protection group, said it would support a lab-meat industry if it meant the end of factory farming.
‘Moves us further away from nature’
But for Monash University philosopher and ethicist Dr Robert Sparrow, growing petri-dish meat would be the “ultimate end-point of the process of denaturalising food”.
“It removes people from any contact with food production … and the safety of this technology for human consumption remains unproved – we will be essentially be conducting an experiment on ourselves.”
Dr Sparrow, who is a visiting fellow at the University of Sydney, viewed the move to mass produce lab food as over complicating our food shortage problems.
He also questioned whether there would be demand for such meat.
“It entirely unlikely that this would replace the meat industry,” Dr Sparrow said.
“If we are going to have food security and sustainable food practices, we need to be looking at much more local agriculture that is not based on industrial food models.