Mark Post knows how to make beef, but he is no butcher. He very much prefers his laboratory to the slaughterhouse. As the chair of Physiology and Vice Dean of Biomedical Technology at Maastricht University, Post has dedicated the most recent decade of his life to creating meat without actually killing animals – so called cultured or in vitro meat.
Although Post has been working on lab-grown meat for years, his research could hardly happen at a better time. Recently, popular fast food chains like Burger King and McDonalds announced the introduction of new, meatless burgers in selected chains. Meat substitutes based on plant protein or insects are already available at restaurants and supermarkets. Tens of thousands of young people are skipping school in order to protest against climate change. Green parties all over Europe are gaining support. 2019 might finally be the year when global warming comes into global awareness, along with the meat and dairy industry that itself is responsible for massive global CO2 emissions.
“Everything that increases awareness certainly helps the cause as well as the business”, Mark Post tells us via Skype ahead of the 2019 Falling Walls Conference in November. For him and his company Mosa Meat, the promise of cultured meat is to keep up with the high demand of meat without many of the negative factors that come with traditional livestock farming: Lab-grown meat has a much lower carbon footprint, it uses less space and water, less resources, and is safer due to being produced in a controlled environment. And, obviously, no cows need to die.
Cultivating meat is easy to do, but hard to master
And yet, opposed to meat alternatives – think of a burger patty made out of soy or bean protein – Mark Post and his colleagues are actually creating real meat. The difference: It does not grow inside a living animal but rather in a bio reactor, something akin to a complex petri dish. Thanks to its sterile and highly controlled environment, contamination as well as the use of hormones and antibiotics are reduced.
The actual process of culturing meat is surprisingly simple, Post explains. First, the scientists are taking stem cells from living cows. These cells have a rapid rate of proliferation which means they reproduce quickly. “Once we have gathered cells, trillions of cells, we package them in units of 1.5 million and put them in a temporary gel so that they stay in the right shape and adhere to each other”. They are further enriched with proteins and vitamins so that they begin to develop as muscle tissue. Layer upon layer of tissue is added to a natural scaffolding until a three dimensional piece of meat develops – just like muscle tissue in a living being.
Nobody has ever done that before
While the process of growing muscle tissue from stem cells is fairly easy, getting a proper, edible piece of meat out of it is much more challenging. First of all, it takes about seven weeks for a single burger patty to grow although the process eventually scales exponentially due to the doubling rate of the stem cells. Second, if you think of a piece of steak or filet, it contains long strains of muscle and fat tissue as well as blood vessels responsible for texture and flavour. However, scientists cannot simply tell their in vitro beef to grow up like a steak, and getting both fat and muscle cells to grow in the same environment has proven to be quite challenging.
Although researchers are working to add fat tissue to the muscle tissue at a later stage, cultured meat these days resembles mostly the structure of minced beef. It is no coincidence that the first public demonstration, back in 2013, was in form of a burger patty. “Minced beef makes up a huge part of the meat market, so it is a good way to start. But it is actually a by-product of the meat industry, so we have to find a way to reproduce other kinds of meat as well”, Post says.
But how does it taste?
Post is one of the few people who actually tasted it. While early external testers described it as a bit bland, Post explains that “taste is a complicated issue”, on which he and his team are working on. It has to be remembered, however, that many ready-made burger patties are already flavoured to some degree and that it will ultimately be up to food technicians and other companies to add to the taste of a lab burger. For Mark Post, it is more important to perfect the process, reduce the costs and scale up the manufacturing, which will probably still take a couple of years.
“The knowledge is there, the equipment is there, but nobody has ever done that before”, he says about the prospect of culturing beef on a commercial scale. In 2013, the combined cost of a single burger was several hundred thousand euro, but now, the costs have been reduced drastically thanks to an established infrastructure. Right now, the price per kilo is closer to that of high-end beef, and it is likely to fall even further.
“We think we can get this to the market in about two to two and a half years, depending on regulations”. That does not mean that it will be widely available in supermarkets – which is the long-term goal – but rather at selected restaurants at first. “For supermarkets, we need to get to the price of regular meat, and that will still take some time, certainly a lot longer than two years”, Post says. Still, even without widespread availability, it is a chance to enter the market and make cultured meat more acceptable.
“If we do not find alternatives now, meat will become scarcer and more expensive. It just cannot meet the global demand the way it is produced right now. Even worse, if we remove all the subsidies in place right now, it will become an almost exclusive thing”. For Mark Post, this either means that many people will become vegetarians, “which is totally fine”, or they will rely on plant-based substitutes, “which is also fine”. But if they want to continue to consume meat without further damaging the planet, it is time to find new ways to produce it outside of the slaughterhouse.
written by: Eike Kühl