Is it possible to eat a steak while leaving the cow intact? Not yet, but lab-generated hamburgers are already available, and we are not far from growing a whole chicken breast

“Good evening,” it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, “I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body?” 

“I just don't want to eat an animal that's standing here inviting me to,” said Arthur, “it's heartless.” 

“Better than eating an animal that doesn’t want to be eaten,” said Zaphod.

“Well,” said the animal… “Which is why it was eventually decided to cut through the whole tangled problem and breed an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly. And here I am.” 

From “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe”, Douglas Adams

In a world where animals do not donate their bodies for food, it is difficult to find moral arguments that justify eating meat, especially if there are suitable substitutes. Yet few people are willing to give up eating meat. Because of this, synthetic or cultured meat have been presented as “the greatest hope for veganism”. This is lab-grown meat, ideally without the killing of animals, so we can continue to consume meat without the need for large-scale breeding of animals just for the purpose of slaughter.

The arguments for cultured meat are not limited to animal welfare, since meat grown in a laboratory can also help reduce environmental damage caused by animal husbandry. According to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), agricultural livestock, especially cattle, account for about 14.5% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, thus contributing to climate change. 44% of these emissions are methane (CH4) and 29% are nitrous oxide (N2O); both cause a greater greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide, so the more we can reduce their emission the better.

Emissions are not the only environmental cost involved in the meat industry: about 30% of the world's land, not including that covered by ice, is used to grow livestock in agriculture; forests are cleared as grazing areas or to make room for crops for animal feed; about 8% of the fresh water is directly or indirectly used for raising animals. In an article from 2012, Mesfin Mekonnen and Arjen Hoekstra from the University of Twente in the Netherlands estimated that more than 15,000 liters of water were needed to produce 1 kilogram of beef. Moreover, the meat industry pollutes water sources and consumes large amounts of energy, mainly in the form of fossil fuels.

Yet demand for meat is on the rise worldwide, partly due to the continued growth of the world's population, with improvement in living conditions in developing countries such as India and China. The FAO predicts that by 2050, meat consumption will grow by more than 70% compared to its level recorded in 2010.

According to those who advocate the development of cultured meat, the move to synthetic meat – as an alternative to animal meat – will help preserve the planet. To support this claim, advocates cite the results of a theoretical study from 2011, according to which, under ideal conditions, cultured meat would use 99% less land, emit 96% less greenhouse gases, consume 96% less water, and consume 45% less energy than beef produced today. The difficulty is to bring these ideas into practicality.

Still not quite like the real thing. Cultured meat in petri dish | Science Photo Library

Taste testing

On April 5, 2013, the first hamburger prepared from lab-grown beef was presented in public. This set off big media waves and hundreds of journalists covered the live taste test. The tasters seemed less enthusiastic. One of them described the taste of the hamburger as “close to meat” yet neither of the tasters was quick to take another bite. And the cost was quite high – about $325,000 for a 140-gram burger, funded mostly by Google's co-founder Sergey Brin. However, considering that this hamburger constituted proof of feasibility, it was a “good start,” as the proud inventor of the artificial meat, Professor Mark Post from the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, said.

To make this meat patty, Post took a sample from the shoulder muscle of a cow in a slaughterhouse. From the sample, he extracted satellite cells, which are found in skeletal muscles and can repair damaged muscle tissue. Post grew them in a rich liquid medium with hormones and nutrients that was partly composed of fetal bovine serum.

The cells multiplied until Post transferred them to small plastic plates containing collagen – an animal protein that serves as a kind of scaffold for growing cells – and nutrient-poor medium. In response to this starvation, the satellite cells turned into muscle cells. The cells line up on the scaffold, merge, and form small rings of extremely thin muscle fibers.

Like our muscles, muscle fibers grown in laboratory dishes need exercise to keep them from wasting and to ensure they continue growing and developing. Post attached the small muscle rings to the plates to induce the same tension that muscles experience in training – a miniature gym of sorts. After the muscle rings expanded, Post cut them into thin strips. He used about 20,000 strips to prepare the hamburgers he served to the taste testers. The whole process took about three months – less than a third of the time needed to grow a cow for human consumption.

Post’s hamburger was grayish and did not resemble the meat we are familiar with, which is reddened by the protein myoglobin. This protein contains an iron ion and binds oxygen, similar to hemoglobin in the blood, so rich red meat is therefore rich in iron. Since Post's cultured meat does not have a blood system that will carry oxygen and nutrients deep into the tissue, it has been grown as thin strips in a very oxygen-rich environment. An undesirable side effect of this was a reduction in the expression of myoglobin in muscle cells, and therefore in iron content and red color.

To give the artificial flesh a red tinge, Post added saffron and beet juice to the patty, as well as crumbs of bread and salt. Also, distinctly from real meat, the experiment meat contained exclusively muscle cells – without any fat cells – and was fried in generous quantities of butter.

To succeed in creating artificial flesh to replace what nature has given us, we will have to closely mimic the composition and texture of animal meat at a reasonable cost. The meat Post presented in 2013 was very expensive, but he estimates that the cost of a similar steak today would be just over 1$1, which means he could grow a kilogram of meat for about $80. In addition, he is currently developing artificial meat that will contain both muscle cells and laboratory-grown fat cells, so the next version of his hamburger will be even closer to the meat we know.

An animal grown on a petri dish?

In Post’s method, thin strips of meat are obtained that are suitable for products such as hamburgers and sausages, which generally use minced meat. But is it possible to grow a large and juicy steak that resembles the real thing and is made up of muscle cells, fat, blood vessels, and connective tissue, just like animal tissue?

Artificially growing such pieces of meat is not a new idea. As early as 1931, Winston Churchill wrote, “Fifty years hence … we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” Churchill misjudged the time it would take, but researchers and companies around the world are now trying to make his vision a reality. In Israel, the Modern Agriculture Foundation, founded in 2014, and comprised mainly of vegetarians and vegans, promotes research aimed at creating cultured poultry. Chicken was chosen because of its popularity both in Israel and in many other countries.

In January 2015, the organization initiated a feasibility study under the direction of Prof. Amit Geffen of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Tel Aviv University. The aim of the study was to examine the obstacles and solutions to making a chicken breast. The tests were expected to end at the beginning of the year, but when I asked Geffen about the project, he replied that he was no longer involved.

However, in July 2016, a mass funding campaign was launched for an Israeli entrepreneurial venture consisting of eight people, called SuperMeat. The company was founded in December 2015 and includes quite a few members from the Modern Agriculture Foundation. The goal of the company is to create “real” chicken meat without killing chickens, based on the research of Prof. Yaakov (Koby) Nahmias, head of Center for Bioengineering at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a co-founder of SuperMeat.

One of the main limitations to growing a thick slice of meat in the laboratory is the difficulty to supply oxygen and nutrients deep into the growing tissue. Without this, the thickness of the tissue cannot exceed 0.3 millimeters, like that of Post’s meat strips. In the living body, oxygen and nutrients reach all regions of the tissue through blood vessels, and in 2006, Nahmias showed this system can be imitated when he cultured liver tissue in a human body with a blood-like system. He plans to use a similar method to grow larger pieces of chicken, in order to get muscle tissue similar to chest-muscle size.

Another problem is the use of animal products. Post raised his meat cells on a bed of serum produced from cow fetuses – a breeding method not exempt from dependence on animals and therefore, not without moral problems.

Most animal cells grown in the lab require serum, but Nahmias’ group did not use it to grow liver cells, opting instead for an alternative, serum-free growth medium. Nahmias and his colleagues even published a paper a year ago in which they showed genetically modified human liver cells can be grown using this alternative and result in a huge number of cells – 1016 (10,000 trillion) cells, which, according to Nahmias, weigh about 80 tons. To grow properly, cultured cells need a few other animal-derived substances, but these can be readily be replaced by materials derived from, for example, genetically engineered plants. Even Post has gone on to grow his cultivated meat on a serum-free medium.

Is it possible to grow chicken meat without killing the birds themselves? Freedom chickens | Science Photo Library

Artificial chicken breast

In order to grow the chicken, Nahmias and his colleagues at SuperMeat intend to take small samples of tissue from different chickens (to preserve genetic diversity) and isolate mesenchymal cells. According to Nahmias, these cells do not need serum to grow and can differentiate into both muscle and fat cells. And unlike the satellite cells used by Post, which needs to be replenished from time to time, Nahmias’ cells are everlasting and can be a constant source of new cells. In other words, after successfully isolating samples from a chicken, which can be released unharmed, no additional samples are needed. In fact, if SuperMeat successfully grows artificial chicken meat, chickens will no longer be needed for meat.

According to SuperMeat's vision, some of the cells produced from the chickens will be grown in a special system called a bioreactor, which mimics some of the natural conditions required for the development of muscle tissue in live poultry, such as exposure to certain hormones. Under these conditions, the cells get organized into small muscle tissue at a length of a few millimeters, which will be packed in capsules and sent to the company's customers. The customers will put the capsules in a machine that the company will develop, where growth powder and water will be added, and the small muscle tissue will continue to develop into a large chicken section. Nahmias predicts that the process of growing a kilogram of chicken meat in such a system will take around 20 days and cost no more than five dollars.

Cultured meat, of course, may have different nutritional values than regular meat, as was the case for Post’s low-iron meat. In this case, artificial vitamins, minerals and other substances will need to be added. Also, as a new food product it will have to be regulated to ensure its quality and safety for human consumption.

For observant Jews there may be another problem that will require the attention of a supervising body – is cultured meat kosher? At the moment, opinions are divided, from rabbis who claim that it is not considered meat at all, and therefore even cultured pork will be kosher, to others who think it is meat in all respects, so it will require rabbinical supervision. It is interesting to consider how “kosher slaughter” will be defined under these conditions.

Product consumption

It is very likely that cheap production of artificial meat that is as similar as possible to real meat will reduce the number of animals slaughtered for food, but meat is not the only animal product used by humans: eggs and milk are very popular foods (although there is also artificial milk created by genetically engineered yeast), and there are many other animal products used in various industries – feathers, blood, skin, internal organs, and more.

It also appears that growing meat in the lab is not going to be a great environmental savior. In contrast to the 2011 study, which examined the environmental impact of cultured meat grown in ideal conditions, studies that examined more realistic conditions showed that in many cases, animal husbandry is less polluting to the environment than cultured meat.

A 2015 study demonstrated cultured meat would use less land than the current meat industry, similarly to the previous study. However, its energy consumption is greater than that required for raising pork, chicken, and even beef. Also, the production of cultured meat emits more greenhouse gases than the production of pork and chicken in the meat industry today. It would seem, then, that cultured meat would be more environmentally friendly than beef, but this is not the case for chicken or pork (not to mention insect meat).

If SuperMeat succeeds in translating Nahmias' success in growing human liver tissue into growing cultured chickens, this will probably not result in curbing the environmental damage involved in growing animals. However, once they have managed to grow on chunk of chicken, it would theoretically be possible to apply their technology to the meat of any other animal. In any case, even if cultured meat will not save the environment, it will at least enable meat eaters to know that the meat they consume came from an animal that is still living and free.