Lab grown food of the future
Allison Cartwright is our ECS Publications Officer. Here she looks at the potential for lab grown food to solve issues of sustainability.
The world population is 7.6 billion (May 2018) having grown by 1 billion in the last 12 years. Every additional human is another mouth for the planet to feed, adding pressure on resources.
In addition, modern medicine also means we are living for longer. As longer life results in the consumption of more food by any individual, there’s even more pressure on resources. With this in mind, there’s a need to produce as much food as possible, but sustainably.
Fishing for ideas
At current, we aren’t meeting our food needs in a way that avoids the destructive depletion of natural resources. There are regular reports of over-fishing and the clearance of forests for crops.
Fisheries landed over 90 tonnes in 2016 with an estimation that 33% of the world’s fisheries have exceeded the level where natural replacement is possible resulting in population decline (FAO 2018).
Agriculture uses 11% of the earth’s surface, but it also places stress on resources. In 2015, it used 70% of the freshwater drawn from rivers was used for irrigation and 80% of the forest cleared were reassigned as farmland (FAO 2017). Therefore our fishing and farming are above the supportable level and so we need to make changes.
One of the new suggestions to make food production more sustainable is to grow it in a lab. There are two main companies fighting to get the first lab-grown meat into our supermarkets. Both companies grow meat from animal cells.
The research by Finless Foods showed that fish paste can be made by growing their meat from cells (Finless foods, 2018). This approach only requires a single fish per species to provide a stock of cells.
Once the cells are harvested, they’re grown in a solution of salts and sugars to form tissue (Martinko 2018). So far, only blue-fin tuna cell paste has been produced but other fish cultures will be started once the methods are refined. These meats are likely to reach the supermarket in 2022.
Pleased to meat you
But fish is not the only meat being grown from cells in a laboratory. Others include foie gras and chorizo. The first meat grown in the lab is likely to be sold later this year by the company Just, but their product has not been announced yet.
One of the big advantages to growing food in labs is it will only contain the edible tissue and so there will not be as much waste as in normal meat production. But, what role will microbes play in the growth of lab meat?
While the scientists work on the cell culture, controlling the conditions will be crucial to the process. This will mean limiting the microbes which will contact their precious product to avoid competition where the ‘wrong cells’ are grown.
It’s also possible that microbes could spoil the product by releasing toxins or foul-tasting compound into the cell culture.
Compare the meat culture to the real animal and there is a very different microbe pattern. Animals are full of bacteria, particularly in their guts. The guts of the red snapper fish can contain over 1 billion bacteria including high abundances of Vibrio (Smriga et al. 2010).
We usually consume the muscle and tissue which are lower in bacteria. But microbes can be introduced to the meat through food processing including those in their gut. These microbes include Vibrio, Salmonella and Listeria.
The consumption of these bacteria can make you very ill for a few days and even occasionally result in death. As the lab-grown meat are, well, grown in a lab under strict conditions, they are probably less likely to contain bacteria which cause gastro-intestinal infections than say a fish processing unit on a ship.
I suspect lab-grown meats will have fewer microbes than their natural equivalent, but will this affect taste?
We’ve all eaten something that didn’t taste pleasant due to microbes; be it mouldy bread or soured milk. While microbes can add ‘bad’ flavour to foods, they can also add ‘beneficial’ flavours too- though obviously it’s subjective according to taste (e.g. sauerkraut, Emmental, Gruyère).
Perhaps the rich taste of a steak is related to the microbes which once lived in it. It’s claimed that cows taste better if reared on grains, rather than grass. If the lab-meat isn’t reared on anything other than a sugar and salt solution, how will this affect its flavour?
This is a question we’ll all be able to answer when the product makes it to our supermarket shelves.
We also have food sources which are primarily microbial. I have become a fan of Quorn products for their unique flavour and animal friendly properties. The Quorn is produced from the fungi Fusarium venenatum specifically PTA-2684.
It is grown in water under conditions to prevent the growth of other microbes. The fungi is later bound together to form food structures with either an egg or potato protein . In a sense, this is a lab-grown food, just not a meat product.
Cultured meats could offer a solution to the unsustainable fishing and farming, but this will depend on the efficiency of production. The cultured meats will also need to be cheap enough to compete with our normal meat. Although only time will tell if lab-grown meat will offer a solution to our food production. Regardless, I can’t wait to try them!
FAO (2018) The state of the world fisheries and aquaculture- meeting the sustainable development goals. United Nations, Rome. Available from: http://www.fao.org/state-of-fisheries-aquaculture/en/
FAO (2017) The state of food and agriculture- leveraging food systems for inclusive rural transformation. United Nations, Rome. Available from: http://www.fao.org/publications/sofa/the-state-of-food-and-agriculture/en/
Finless Foods (2018) Sustainable seafood without the catch [Online]. Available from: https://finlessfoods.com/
Martinko, K. (2018). Finless Foods is bringing lab-grown fish to your dinner plate [Online]. Available from: https://www.treehugger.com/green-food/finless-foods-growing-fish-lab.html
Simon, M. (2018) Lab-grown meat is coming whether you like it our not [Online]. Available from: https://www.wired.com/story/lab-grown-meat/