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Meat without Murder: the Future of Beef and Leather

Modern Meadow is a company co-founded by Gabor and Andras Forgacs, a father-son team, that produces meat and leather from bovine cells without killing livestock. Instead, meat is grown in a tech incubator in Columbia, Missouri, where Gabor Forgacs heads the biological physics lab at the University of Missouri, known also as Mizzou.

Using a 3D printer, living cells are collected, fused together and printed into the desired shape. In this case, little patties and sheets of leather the size of a credit card. Bovine cells are biopsied without harm to the cow. For meat, this means taking cells from smooth muscle and fat tissue, while cells biopsied for leather come from the skin tissue.

There are roughly 7 billion people in the world today, a great majority of whom subsists on meat. To meet the needs of this majority, some 60 billion land animals are raised and slaughtered each year, an amount that is only expected to double by 2050, when the world’s population will reach an estimated 9.5 billion.

Raising livestock is already resource intensive as it is, and this rising demand only puts greater strain on our planetary resources. Annually, global meat production:

  • Is responsible for 18 % of greenhouse emissions
  • Consumes 8 % of the world’s water, and
  • Claims 1/3 of all non-ice landmass

Compared to traditionally sourced meat, cultured meat will:

  • Use 99 % less landmass
  • Require 96 % less water
  • Release 96 % fewer greenhouse emissions, and
  • Expend 45 % less energy to produce

One of the concerns faced by companies that wish to sell cultured meat is its current level of marketability. While designers are likely to utilize tissue engineered leather for use in cruelty-free articles of clothing, meat eaters may be less receptive to the idea that their meal was spawned in a shallow, glass dish in the lab. But those who are tentative should keep in mind that bio-printed meat is nutritionally identical to traditionally sourced meat and with development will achieve the same presentation and texture. Though the taste, as gathered from the public “samplings” by Gabor and Andras Forgacs (you can watch Gabor as he samples their product via YouTube), still has room for improvement.

An additional question of concern is whether cultured meat can yet be considered cruelty-free. While it is undoubtedly an improvement to the current practices of commercial meat production, it requires the use of Fetal Calf Serum (FCS), which is acquired at commercial slaughterhouses. This brings about its own argument, as some believe it utilizes fetuses that would not have survived as is, for they are removed from cows that have already been slaughtered. However, there remains the chance that the fetus can feel pain during the extraction, which involves the insertion of a needle through the fetus’s ribs into the heart, from where all the blood is drained.

So where, then, would FCS be obtained if the future moved towards cultured meat exclusively, ridding the purpose for slaughterhouses? At the moment, that may be a generous assumption. Nonetheless, it is something that companies will have to consider.  There are plant alternatives to FCS, but many companies do not find them feasible enough an option to pursue. An other option is to forgo serum altogether, and some studies actually find benefits to serum-free cell and tissue culture, including the reduced risk of a potential source of biological contamination.

grow_meat_chart

Image source: http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-06-06/modern-meadow-makes-leather-and-meat-without-killing-animals

 

Jumping back to cultured leather, one can expect designers like Stella McCartney to embrace these new textiles. But a more prominent marker for change could take root if leather-favoring designers began to swap the killing and chemical intensive practices for sheets of cultured leather. This may happen once sheets expand to and beyond 10×10 inches, which is about a year off. Once this is achieved, Modern Meadow plan to collaborate with designers to make slaughter-free leather apparel and accessories.

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