Illustration of the

Where’s the beef: fake meat or real livestock production?

In vitro meat: to beef or not to beef?

Grow muscle cells to produce meat in vitro: a solution that seems tempting to spare livestock animals… But how realistic is it? Which way does the cost-benefit scale tip? An interview with Jean-François Hocquette, who coordinated the publication of an international scientific journal on the subject in 2015.

By Pascale Mollier, translated by Inge Laino
Updated on 06/15/2017
Published on 02/20/2017

In vitro steak. © INRA
In vitro steak © INRA

The media is abuzz about the food of the future, and even the not-so-distant future. Since the first steak made from stem cells made an appearance in 2013, in vitro meat appears to be a solution to the problems of animal welfare and food security. To boot, it is more environment-friendly than traditional livestock production.

Nevertheless, the international scientific community is much more sceptical than the media about developing this technique and the advantages it brings. That is what a special issue of a scientific review (1) featuring ten articles that examine the different facets of this innovation suggests.

What is in vitro meat?

Cover of the journal JIA. Photo of in vitro meat. © INRA
Cover of the journal JIA. Photo of in vitro meat © INRA
Jean-François Hocquette
: For now, in vitro meat consists of a mass of muscle cells that multiply in Petri dishes in a culture medium that is rich enough to allow cells to multiply thanks especially to hormones, growth agents, foetal calf serum, antibiotics and fungicides. That is why we would need to produce all of these ingredients, some of which are in fact animal-based, on a large scale… The reproductive capacity of stem cells is limited and does not yet lead to new generations of offspring. Even if we can create myotubes that form muscle fibres (2), we are still a world away from real muscle, which is made up of organised fibres, blood vessels, nerves, connective tissue and fat cells. The first in vitro steak was seasoned with many ingredients to make it taste like real meat (3).

In vitro v. traditional meat: how do they size up?

J-F. H.: As far as the environment is concerned, it is difficult to say what the impact of this process would be, because there are no factories yet that produce artificial meat. According to different estimates, it would only have a moderate impact in reducing the greenhouse effect and nitrate-based pollution. When it comes to fossil fuels (4), the advantages are limited, and very limited in terms of water savings. What is more, residues from the synthetic products mentioned above and used in the cultures would end up in factory wastewater.

The only unquestionable advantages of in vitro meat would be freeing up arable land and avoiding the slaughter of livestock animals. This calls into question the very thinking behind livestock production, because the very raison d’être of livestock animals is to end up in our plates. And we must remember that if we get rid of livestock production altogether, we would lose an entire swathe of agriculture. That would have economic, social, cultural and environmental fallouts that tend to be underestimated (5).

Is in vitro meat a realistic solution for tomorrow?

Will consumers buy and eat artificial meat?. © INRA, INRA
Will consumers buy and eat artificial meat? © INRA, INRA

J-F. H.: For now, the cost of producing in vitro meat is prohibitive: 250,000 euros for the first steak in 2013! Even if costs will almost certainly go down, it will be difficult to achieve production on an industrial scale without a technological breakthrough. It’s difficult to say, but it certainly won’t happen in the next ten years. Introduction on the market will also be slow-going. It’s worth remembering that a product like Quorn, made from fungal mycelium, which is a lot simpler from a health and safety point of view, took more than 20 years to gain a foothold in US and northern European markets. It also takes time for consumers to accept the product. According to one of the articles in the journal, the amount of time that takes is largely underestimated, especially in the western press, which is captivated by the revolutionary potential of this innovative technology (6). Indeed, a survey carried out among scientists and students from all over the world shows that consumers are very sceptical (7). Price and how the fake meat feels in the mouth are the main obstacles, but also the cost/benefit balance at the collective level: animal-free protein v. loss of culture and rural heritage, scientific progress v. controls and regulations (8). There are other accessible solutions in the short term to feed the world without doing damage to the environment and animals.

Feed the world: what are the options?

J-F. H.: There are several non-exclusive and complementary solutions to feeding the world. One that is strongly recommended today (9) and encouraged by public policy is to cut back significantly on food waste, which accounts for about a third of food production. A second solution would be to eat a little less and to increase the share of plant protein in diets to replace some animal protein (10), without banishing meat entirely. There is good-quality protein to be found in pulses, whole grains and simulated meat products such as tofu. Several companies have developed vegetarian steaks that taste and look like meat. A third solution consists of diversifying sources of animal protein by looking to the food habits of other cultures (eating different animals, small mammals, insects, reptiles, etc.), but that can pose problems of social acceptability. We must also promote different kinds of livestock production that are environmentally-friendly and based on a high degree of feed or forage autonomy for ruminants. Lastly, the modernisation of livestock production, with genetic selection and economies of scale, should help cover the demand for meat products more efficiently.

 
(1) Journal of Integrative Agriculture 2015, 14 (2): 206–294.
(2) Muscle cells fuse spontaneously to form myotubes that in turn develop into muscle fibres.
(3) Breadcrumbs, beetroot juice, saffron, egg powder, etc.
(4) A 2015 life cycle analysis shows that, despite a high level of uncertainty, in vitro meat may consume more energy than meat from traditional livestock production because of the industrial process. It may also contribute more to global warming than pork or poultry. Mattick C. S. et al. 2015. Anticipatory Life Cycle Analysis of In Vitro Biomass Cultivation for Cultured Meat Production in the United States. Environmental Science & Technology. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b01614.
(5) See page 5: Ruminant livestock production is still key.
(6) Hopkins P.D. 2015. Cultured meat in western media: The disproportionate coverage of vegetarian reactions, demographic realities, and implications for cultured meat marketing. Journal of Integrative Agriculture 2015, 14 (2): 264–272.
(7) Hocquette A. et al. 2015. Consumers don’t believe artificial meat is the solution to the problems with the meat industry. Journal of Integrative Agriculture, 14 (2): 273–284.
(8) Verbeke W et al. 2015a. ‘Would you eat cultured meat?’: Consumers' reactions and attitude formation in Belgium, Portugal and the United Kingdom. Meat Science, 102, 49–58.
(9) Marion Guillou and Gérard Matheron (2011). 9 milliards d'hommes à nourrir : Un défi pour demain. François Bourin Editeur, collection "société, 2011, 432 pages. Translated into English by Editions QUAE - "The world's challenge. Feeding 9 billion people".
(10) See page 3: A portrait of a sustainable diet.

Contact(s)
Scientific contact(s):

References

- Hocquette J-F. et al. 2013. La viande du futur sera-t-elle produite in vitro? INRA Prod. Anim. 26-4, 363-374.

- Journal of Integrative Agriculture 2015, 14 (2). Special focus, 206-294.

- Hocquette J-F. 2016. Is in vitro meat the solution for the future? Meat Science 120, 167–176.

- Porcher J., 2010. The production of in vitro meat, the last stages? La Revue Politique et Parlementaire n° 1057. Europe: what CAP for 2013? Oct/Nov/Dec 2010, pp 97-104.

Jean Francois Hocquette is a research director at INRA’s Herbivores Joint Research in Auvergne-Rhône Alpes. He is also a scientific delegate at the High Council for Evaluation of Research and Higher Education (HCERES) and is editor of the French journal Viande et produits carnés (on meat and meat products).

In vitro meat: the pros and cons

Pros

  • Cut back on or eliminate animal slaughter
  • Free up land
  • Control and optimise nutritional composition according to promoters of artificial meat, but not advocates of the precaution principle (difficult to control entire process)

Cons

  • Exorbitant costs but likely to fall
  • Need for more research (and therefore time and money) for large-scale production at low cost
  • Many animal-based ingredients for culture mediums (hormones, growth agents, foetal calf serum)
  • Potential pollutant residue (fungicides, antibiotics, hormones, etc.)
  • Low social acceptability, at least for now
  • Life without livestock production? Loss of culture and rural heritage

Unknowns

  • Unknown environmental impact with high level of uncertainty (energy, GHG, water, nitrates, pollution)

Meat substitutes: take your pick!

. © INRA
© INRA

-  Impossible Food, a Silicon Valley start-up, produces a steak made of wheat, coconut oil and potato. It is as juicy as real meat thanks to the addition of heme, or “plant blood”, a protein extracted from the roots of pulses.

- Beyond Meat (Missouri) proposes a 100% plant-based “chicken breast” made from soy and pea protein, carrot fibres, canola oil, plant flavouring and food colouring: titanium dioxide. Price: 19 euros/kg…

-  The “Nourished” project in Los Angeles takes things up a notch with a virtual-reality meal of 3-D printed cubes made of agar, a jelly-like substance derived from algae. It is eaten with a headset and aromatic diffuser that creates the illusion of eating meat…

- This one is not for the faint of heart: a Japanese scientist extracts protein from Tokyo sewage, which is rich in human excreta, to create edible food. Find out more.

- Four major companies are in the business of making in vitro meat from stem cells:

  • Mosa Meat (Netherlands), with the creator of the first in vitro steak, the Dutch scientist Mark Post.
  • Memphis Meats (San Francisco): 18,000 dollars/kg for in vitro meat
  • Supermeat (Tel Aviv) (chicken)
  • Modern Meadow (Brooklyn): manufactures meat chips by 3-D printing. Price: 100 dollars/piece.