Huge sums have been pumped into research and development in recent decades, and the upshot is that science and technology are on fast forward. Over the past century, thousands of ideas across many fields have been patented around the world. While some of us may not have noticed some of them, many are quite exciting and radically changing the way we live.
Now I hear that, before too long, some of the meat on our supermarket shelves would have come from a laboratory instead of an abattoir. According to reports coming out of the UK, tissue engineering experts at Bath University have figured out how to grow animal cells on blades of grass and are busy fine-tuning this intricate process so that the costs involved are not too high.
Laboratory-grown meat that is cultured from animal stem cells has always been considered by some as a sustainable and ethical way of satiating humanity’s ever-increasing demand for meat, a key source of protein – an essential nutrient for the human body. However, the high cost of “growing” meat has hitherto ensured that the meat that is so produced is out of reach, even for the well heeled – well, at least some of them. Last year, Israeli company Future Meat Technologies reported that it had managed to slash the cost of “growing” meat from the previously bandied-about $20 000/kg to $100/kg. That equates to about R1 400/kg – which is much, much more than what the average South African consumes in months.
The Bath University team, led by biochemical engineering lecturer Marianne Ellis, has discovered that grass can be an ideal scaffold for meat cells to latch on and grow. She told a Reuters journalist earlier this month: “What we have seen in our lab is that the muscle cells are growing really well on grass and the great thing about grass, in particular, is that it is striated, there are lines on the grass – you can see them with your eyes – and the muscle cells will actually align with this structure.”
The ongoing Bath research is centred on small bioreactors that hold grass whose cells would have been removed, leaving a platform for the meat cells to grow. As Ellis explained to the Reuters journalist, the main objective is to replicate the conditions found in cattle and chicken that allow muscle to grow – that is, the material that it is grown on, the nutrient solution that is fed to it and the general environment it is grown in.
While the Bath research has produced encouraging results so far, Ellis reckons that the prospect of slaughter-free meat on supermarket shelves is probably five years off.
Should Ellis & Co pull this off and affordable man-made meat becomes available on a large scale, they would have helped provide a solution to a couple of challenges confronting the world. Firstly, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, a massive amount of the climate change, land degradation, deforestation and biodiversity loss that have occurred in recent times has been attributable to industrialised agriculture. Obviously, when we get to a point where meat is cheaply grown in laboratories, industrialised agriculture can be scaled back and these impacts will be mitigated.
Secondly, the global demand for meat is projected to be twice its 2000 level by 2050, when there will be about nine-billion of us on earth. Growing meat in the lab is thus deemed to be the only way of meeting this demand without wreaking further harm on the environment.
Cheap, slaughter-free meat could also be the solution to the projected declining protein availability in sub-Saharan Africa in the coming decades. The region’s per capita daily animal protein intake has generally been more than 30 g since 1980 but will likely slump to about 5 g in 2036 as the population grows. Daily crop protein intake, on the other hand, is expected to decline to around 25 g during the same time. This should cause alarm, as the minimum healthy daily adult intake is 50 g to 60 g.