12 January - 20 June 2016

The potential of cultured meat

04 June 14

In a paper recently published in Trends in Biotechnology, researchers from Wageningen University in The Netherlands describe a potential process for manufacturing meat products that starts with animal stem cells. The paper aims to contribute to the current discussion surrounding meat sustainability and alternative protein sources by detailing the possibilities of cultured meat, the great positive of which is the beneficial effect on the environment. If cultured meat were commonplace, then the greenhouse gas emissions from livestock could be reduced, and land freed up for other uses.

It has already been demonstrated that the capability for producing meat in this fashion exists, for example by Dr Mark Post of Maastrict University, who last year created a hamburger starting from cow's muscle stem cells. This and other attempts have all used small-scale laboratory processes, however. The questions now surrounding cultured meat are whether it would gain consumer acceptance and regulatory backing, and whether processes for its creation could scale up efficiently and cost-effectively.

Authors of the recent paper Cor van der Weele and Johannes Tramper contend that scaling up production is certainly possible; the method they outline would involve taking a small number of stem cells, growing cells to the desired cell density in a bioreactor, and binding them with the protein-crosslinking enzyme transglutaminase and binding protein before pressing the results into a "cake". The authors suggest that the process would work well at a local level, with perhaps each town having its own cultured meat factory. Despite this optimism, however, the authors note that there would be economic difficulties. The process is not cheap, and products would be expensive in comparison to traditional meat. They suggest that future increases in meat prices might lead to cultured meat being a more economically viable alternative.

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