The Future of Meat

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Coming soon: genetically engineered meat in a supermarket near you

Like other genetically modified animals, the Yorkshire pig—whose DNA has been spliced with the mouse genome—has been given a cute, friendly name to endear it to a suspicious public. It’s called the Enviropig (its critics call it Frankenswine) because it digests phosphorus 50–70 per cent better than ‘traditional’ pigs, and is thus ‘greener’ than the hogs out there, whose phosphorus-rich manure pollutes land and water, creating algal blooms that deplete oxygen and strangle marine life. While hog farmers now inject their pigs with phytase, an enzyme that breaks down phosphorus, the Enviropig secretes it naturally in its saliva.

Canada’s University of Guelph, which has been developing the Enviropig since 1999, has registered patents for it in the US, Canada and China, and is waiting for an FDA (Food and Drug Administration, US) stamp. It’s in line for approval behind AquaAdvantage, a genetically modified salmon that grows twice as fast as normal salmon. Its fate is to be decided by the end of this year, and it’s almost certain that we’ll have biotech meat in a supermarket near us in the near future.

Oink, oink, and welcome to the brave new world of engineered meat. As biotechnology becomes more sophisticated, researchers are moving beyond GM (genetic modification) crops to the animal frontier. There are others besides the Enviropig that were injected with fat-1 gene, and thus produce more Omega-3 fatty acids in their meat. Since Omega-3 is great for the cardiovascular system, and is usually found in seafoods like salmon, ‘bacon with benefits’ has created a stir in the meat industry. Canada’s Prairie Orchards have won numerous awards for their ‘healthy’ pork, and have been selling their award-winning fishy pork across the country.

With scientists able to tinker with the DNA of farm animals, it’s just a matter of time before we have meat tailored to our particular cravings. There will be cows injected with oyster genes, whose beef acts as an aphrodisiac, or chicken that create more Vitamin-D, and whose chicken wings would be considered a dietary supplement during the long winters. Or how about ‘smart’ meats that are rich in minerals like Vitamin K, L-Carnosine and others that boost brainpower? ‘Calming’ meats that soothe the nervous system? Meats with Prozac that help cure depression? Imagine a supermarket of the future, with aisles marked ‘Aphrodisiac Meat’, ‘Winter Blues Meat’, ‘Meditative Meat’ and so on… On a less positive note, we could heed the words of Canadian dystopic author Margaret Atwood, who invented ChickieNobs (genetically engineered chicken with multiple breasts and no eyes or beaks) in her landmark 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake.

Unless there’s a dangerous mutation in the coming decade, which brings home the dangers of freewheeling genetic engineering, this might not be the science fiction it now seems.

Even cloned meats, which seemed unthinkable a decade ago, are now part of the food chain, in the United States at least. In a landmark decision in 2008, the US FDA approved the sale of meat from the offspring of cloned animals. The FDA said that there was no difference between ‘normal’ and ‘cloned’ meat, as long as the latter came from the offspring of cloned animals. With dairy farmers under pressure to replicate the high-grade milk and steaks of prize-winning bulls, cloning seems an easy option. Frankfarmers—as the critics have dubbed them—buy a ‘cloned’ bull for $10,000–15,000, and then mate it with the rest of their herd, creating cloned offspring that spread through the food chain. The clones themselves, who are used for breeding, are much too expensive to eat. Like the ‘founders’ of great dynasties, they are left to graze and give birth to a future generation of winners. For clones at least, life is gas.

However, since clones are known to have weaker immune systems, and are more susceptible to disease, consumer rights groups have reacted in alarm to ‘cloned’ steaks in our midst. Eventually, breeding and cloning will, by the laws of capitalism, lead to a superbreed of giant animals that will produce huge quantities of meat and milk. This is already happening in the United States, where winners of the World Dairy Expo, like Vandyk-K Integrity Paradise, are immediately cloned. Test-tube embryos, made from the cloned bull by US companies like Cyagra Clone, are then offered to ambitious farms worldwide.

Although almost 50 per cent of Americans, and 60 per cent of the English, are against cloned meat, the US and UK governments have approved its sale. Even in Japan, where cloned beef recently raised the spectre of a beef boycott, the government believes that cloned animals will help small farms become more competitive by helping them raise genetically superior cattle.

I can sympathise with the motivations for cloning farm animals. After all, we do the same with fashion, lifestyle, architecture, and celebrities, copying successful formulas endlessly. But, just as there’s a difference between a ‘fake’ Versace and a real one, isn’t there one between the original prize-winning bull and its clone?

Scientists admit that there is some degree of genetic degradation with cloning, and since the process is not completely understood, it’s possible that the clone is only as close to its creator as a photocopy is to the original. When eating cloned meat, are we just chewing at a copy of something and chasing after an approximation of a good idea, just as those who wear knock-off brands do? In this era of biotech beasts, these words are definitely food for thought.

For those who are already grossed out by the idea of eating something that was incubated in a laboratory, the present obsession with lab-grown ‘meat without feet’ might seem one step too far in the wrong direction. But with global meat demand expected to grow 40 per cent by 2025, and environmentalists sounding alarm bells about a cruel industry that is responsible for 20 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions, momentum has been building for a hi-tech solution to our craving for meat. And, with Peta (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) having announced a reward of $1 million for those who can create edible lab-grown meat by Christmas 2012, the race is on.

Vladimir Mironov, a biologist at the Medical University of South Carolina, is on the forefront of the in-vitro meat movement. He has taken myoblasts—embryonic cells that develop into muscle tissue—from turkey and soaked them in a nutrient bath, so that the cells develop on their own. The process, which has also been replicated by scientists in the Netherlands, works up to a point, creating soggy, thin layers of muscle tissue that can be fused together to create the kind of minced meat that goes into burgers, chicken nuggets, sausages and other products. Mironov calls his fused meat sheets ‘schmeat’ and says that in-vitro meat “is the inescapable future”. He also claims that they can produce any meat, and even add fat to make it tastier. In the future, Mironov says they will add a vascular system to grow thicker slabs of meat like steak.

Those who believe in the future of lab-meat marshal some strong arguments in its favour. While farm animals require 3 to 8 kg of nutrient to make 1 kg of meat, and also produce a lot of waste, in-vitro meat is efficient. The humane method is also in stark contrast to the cruel practice of killing animals for feed. For those enraged at the disgraceful conditions at industrial slaughterhouses—where animals are often skinned or boiled alive by armies of minimum wage workers—in-vitro meat seems a wonderful alternative. Why eat ‘meat with feet’ when we can grow it painlessly in the lab? Wouldn’t it be better to get our meat from what Mironov calls ‘carneries’, a place where giant vats grow our favourite meats in nutrient-rich baths? Instead of the blood, gore and ceaseless suffering of the meat factories, we’d have cheerful laboratories with white-coated scientists monitoring gauges.

It all sounds much too futuristic, like the food synthesisers aboard Starship Enterprise (under the command of Captain Kirk in the TV series Star Trek) that could convert organic material into any meat the crew needed.

Yet, for all its lauded benefits, the prospect of lab-meat coming to a supermarket near you is still at least a decade away. The first hurdle is having the meat taste like meat. For all the progress being made, lab-meat still doesn’t taste like much. One of the biologists describes the lab-grown pork as a “soggy, tasteless” version of the real thing. Another likened it to the coloured ‘meat’ paste in the futuristic film, Soylent Green, about a dystopic New York in 2022.

Meat tastes yummy because of a variety of factors, including the interplay of muscle and fat. Real meat also has bones, skin and blood that will take a generation to recreate in a lab. And even once biologists do manage to create something that tastes like meat, there is the yuck factor to get over. It would take billions of dollars in marketing and promotion to convince a sceptical public to eat something grown in a lab.

On the other hand, all it might take is one major global food crisis to spur the production of in-vitro meat. As an idea, its time has already come. The New Yorker ran a long feature on lab-meat this spring, and in Europe, the Dutch government has thrown its weight behind the initiative. As global meat demand soars and fertile land for grazing shrinks, it’s inevitable that lab-grown meat will become part of our digestive future.