There is something about food that typically causes us to feel traditional. Perhaps it is that we have fond memories of eating our favorite recipes during childhood, or that we grew up eating family dinners each night. But no matter the reason, we tend to like our food to be “natural” and no different than what our ancestors ate (see: Paleo diet). And despite the massive amount of technology and innovation that goes into the agriculture industry responsible for putting food on our plate every day, most people like to imagine that food production is simple and natural. “Farm-to-table” restaurants continually become more popular, and going to the farmers’ market is a weekly tradition for many. So given the attachment to we have to our grass-fed beef from Whole Foods, can we accept food that is grown in a laboratory, far far away from a grass field?
It is a question that San Francisco startup Memphis Meats is willing to ask. Claiming to be the “future of meat,” the company is experimenting with growing meat in vitro and recently produced the first lab-grown meatball. Aiming to bring lab-grown meat to mass markets within the next five years, the company makes a compelling case for producing meat in vitro instead of a farm and slaughterhouse. Using animal stem cells to meet the ever-increasing demands of a growing population cuts out excessive antibiotic use and potential E.coli contaminations. CEO Uma Valeti also argues that Memphis Meat production is more sustainable than traditional farming methods. He claims that growing meat in-vitro reduces the number of calories needed to produce one calorie of beef. Valeti also maintains that the process is wholly natural given that it produces meat in its purest form, without the aforementioned antibiotics and such.
But arguments about “natural” foods and sustainability aside, is this premise truly realistic? How much energy does it take to scale up meat production and run the necessary freezers, refrigerators, and incubators needed to grow meat stem cells? And more importantly, what will the cost of reagents look like and how will they be obtained? When performing cell culture experiments as needed to grow these meat cells, fetal bovine serum (FBS) is an essential component of growth media. Running upwards of $1,000 per 1-liter bottle, FBS presents a financial hurdle as well as a major hole in the premise of lab-grown meats: what good is lab-grown meat if it still relies heavily on animal byproducts? While a few synthetic FBS options are available, they are not widely used, and whether or not they perform comparably to regular FBS has yet to be determined.
According The Wall Street Journal, Memphis Meats plans to develop a plant-based substitute for FBS. At this point the price of said alternative is unpredictable, though it is expected that its initial development will be costly. It also remains to be seen if it can compete with the proteins and growth hormones endogenous to conventional FBS.
So while a great novelty for now, I look forward to seeing if lab-grown meat can truly be a realistic option at the grocery store. Will it be accepted as a viable alternative, especially in the food environment where science is typically eschewed? Only time will tell. But I for one am truly excited about the possibility of not having to continually worry whether or not my medium-rare steak is coming with a side of E.coli.