Lab-grown meat and DIY milk – the future of farming?

Last August, Netherlands scientists took stem cells from two cows, used them to grow 20,000 muscle fibres which were then individually grown in culture with antibiotics and a serum extracted from cow foetuses. When the little loops of protein were ready, they were removed by hand, cut open and straightened before being squeezed together, coloured with beetroot juice and mixed with saffron, breadcrumbs and binding ingredients. Viola, a £215,000 beefburger.

Source: Maastrich University

Sound a bit gimmicky? This was a proof of concept, but the motivation is to provide an alternative to the grossly inefficient livestock industry that will soon be cracking under the pressure of an expanding, greedy growing population.

Livestock farming occupies a massive 30% of the world’s ice-free land area, requiring around 4.7 billion tonnes of feed biomass to them every year. To produce one pound of cooked beef requires 27 square metres, 12kg of feed and 950 litres of water. Not to mention the fossil fuel energy required to power the tractors, trucks and other machinery required to get from cow to plate. Factor in the greenhouse gas emissions and even your 99p burger from the local fastfood restaurant is actually rather expensive. Not to your pocket perhaps, but the environment.

So, massive efforts to produce just one burger in a lab are actually the first steps towards eco-friendly meat that might one day be scaled up and commonplace. With the prospect of a population hitting 9.5 billion by 2060, producing a lot of food on less land is certainly an idea to be pursued.

And not just meat. Intensive milk production is commonplace in many parts of the world but it too has a big environmental and ethical impact. Writing in New Scientist recently, bioengineer Ryan Pandya told of his dream: to produce authentic artificial milk. Milk seems to be comparatively simple to produce: convert the readily available relevant amino acid sequences into DNA, mix these with yeast cells which churn out the proteins, add some fat, sugar, minerals and water and you have milk. Even better, you have milk without all the nasties – lactose, cholesterol, antibiotic residue and bacteria – it won’t need pasteurization or refrigeration.

Moo-free milk is still very much in its infancy, even more so than meat, but both are interesting prospects.

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3 Responses

  1. Avatar Christian Matheou says:

    This was really interesting! It’s quite shocking to see the actual numbers on how inefficient meat production is, and I had no idea they were working on producing milk by way of the test tube. Exciting stuff!

    • Avatar Amber Bullingham says:

      It really is. There is no doubt that innovative ideas like this are essential if we are to improve equality between nations in a sustainable way.

      • Definitely! And because the burger is such a striking story, it does a fairly good job at getting people talking about alternatives to the terrifically inefficient way in which we currently produce our food.

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