Cultured beef and lab-grown burgers – Meat or not?

Professor Mark Post cultures meat in a Petri-dish!

From flying cars to robotics and now growing actual meat, inventions and innovations we had read about in science-fiction stories are slowly but surely coming to life, proving that science-fiction is slowly becoming science-non-fiction.

Mark Post is the Team Lead of Cultured Beef, Maastricht University and is in the process of refining the science of growing meat in his lab back in Netherlands. Post says that he is ‘looking at having cultured beef on our shelves say within the next seven to eight years’. Benefits of having a viable alternate livestock source will significantly reduce the emission of harmful greenhouse gases into our atmosphere.

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We (Tech Storm-TS) had the opportunity to speak to Post (MP) and find out more about his ‘in vitro meat’ innovation, when he visited Singapore to give a talk at the annual EmTech Asia 2016.

TS: How did you even think of this idea – culturing beef in your lab?

MP: I sort of got in there by coincidence. I was tissue engineering blood vessels, for bypass surgery and the technology landed itself in all sorts of other tissues. It was then that I got acquainted with the possibly to use this for skeletal muscle, in particular for the consumption of beef, so I started working on that.

TS: But why beef in particular and not other sources of protein like pork or chicken?

MP: Beef is especially important because cows have a very inefficient production system, in the sense, they transform vegetable proteins like grass to animal protein in the form of beef. Pigs are more efficient – about twice as efficient as cows. Chicken are even more efficient than that. In addition, a cow is a ruminant which emits methane – one of the most powerful greenhouse gases that we have.

TS: How long did it take you to culture your first prototype, in this case ‘in vitro meat‘?

MP: From the moment that we got the funding to our first prototype, it took about a year and a half.

TS: Recalling your journey from the ideation, inception to now, what would you say is the biggest roadblock you have faced?

MP: Funding issues aside, the biggest challenge would be culturing that many cells with traditional technology.

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TS: Could you share with our readers and who might not exactly have a science background, how many cells or muscle fibres does a regular meat patty have and how long does it take to culture it?

MP: It has 10,000 muscle fibres and every muscle fibre consists of about one and a half million cells, so that is about 15 billion cells that you need for a meat patty. Once you have it all right, it takes about seven to eight weeks to produce a patty and it can be done in a parallel capacity. So if it take seven to eight weeks to grow one patty, it would also take seven to eight weeks to grow say 10,000 patties.

TS: Given a chance to go back in time, would you have done anything different?

MP: From the moment that we had presented the proof of concept in London, I probably should have started a company immediately and got private funding to speed up the process, instead of going through charity funding.

TS: What has been the one greatest satisfaction working on ‘in vitro meat‘ so far?

MP: I think the greatest satisfaction is seeing that it works, that you can actually do this and that many more people than I initially expected are embracing this technology and are looking forward to it.

TS: In your opinion, what do you think is the one compelling consumer use case for your invention?

MP: I think the most compelling case is that people who are aware of the issues of livestock like beef production, in terms of food security, animal welfare and the environment will convert to eating cultured beef instead of livestock beef. Having said that, I think the eventual sort of goal is to solve large scale livestock issues.

Mark_Post_3TS: How would having ‘in vitro meat’ disrupt our lives and probably change the world as we know it?

MP: The point is that it would not disrupt our lives, but if we do not do anything it will disrupt our lives. Meat will become a very scarce and expensive item as the demand is growing, while production is not really keeping up. This technology will allow us to keep our lifestyle without the negative consequences on the environment and food security.

It will change the whole supply chain – in terms of livestock farmers. I am proposing to reduce the number of livestock for cows, from 1.5 billion to say 30,000 and obviously you need a lot less farmers for that.

TS: In one sentence, how would you describe life in 2030 would be like?

MP: In relation to the food and meat system, I think in 2030 we would have adopted cultured beef on a large scale and we would be comfortable with it that we can eat meat without all the negative consequences.

We are looking at having cultured beef on our shelves say within the next seven to eight years, as we need four to five years to get it to the market. It will initially be expensive at a cost price of about 50Euro/kg. That is 20 times more expensive than the cheapest meat that we have right now, but it is sort of in the realm of marketability for high end restaurants and speciality stores. This price point is the result of current technology scaled up and not the improvement of the technology.

So it is easily imaginable that the technology will improve and become more efficient. Now we already know where to do that, in order to bring the price down to a competitive or even cheaper price than what meat is right now.

This article is an excerpt from Tech Storm.

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