I magine a future where instead of the supermarket, you get your lunchtime chicken sandwich from a new type of store. A store that hasn’t bought their meat products but have grown them in an ‘in house’ bioreactor. Imagine a store that resembles a craft brewery more than a butcher. I asked Dr Mark Post from Maastricht University, about the role designers could play in ‘In Vitro’ meat in the future. He confirmed that a local form of production is a possibility in the future, and designers would have key a role in this.
Currently there is a big problem with the way we get our meat. The meat agriculture sector contributes 37% of the methane emissions. Livestock raised for meat occupying 30% of global ice-free terrestrial land and 8% of global freshwater.
L ab Grown meat, otherwise known as ‘In Vitro’, ‘Clean Meat’ or ‘Cultured Meat’ by those in the industry is relatively simple in theory. Selected cells (embryonic) myoblasts or adult skeletal muscle (satellite cells) are extracted from a living cow, chicken or other animal. These are then proliferated and attached to a scaffold; i.e.
the shape that the intended product should look like, this is then grown inside a ‘bioreactor’ with a suitable medium. Ok, maybe it’s not that simple, but it has been achieved by a number of companies.
“It is still early stages. Some groups can make small quantities of meat like tissue, but no one can make lots of it, and it is too expensive.” Says Dr Neil Stephens, a sociologist, who has been studying the development of the cultured meat field since 2008. Current claims state that the price of a lab burger had dropped from $325,000 to $11.36 or, $80 per kilogram of in vitro meat. It is still a little far off current meat prices, but with this rate of progress is it unrealistic to see the price being competitive in the next 10 years?
According to Dr Stephens “Others in the companies suggest supermarket prices meat should be available by then. But there is a long way to go.” A further point is ‘what’ can be made at the moment. “So far, only muscle for processed meats like burgers is possible. No one is close to steak”.
This is due to the complex mix of things that make up the look and taste of steak, more than a thousand water soluble and fat derived components bring about the flavour of meat. Complex scaffold design that aims to grow meat to look more familiar has led to some companies looking to 3D printing technologies to help. Here presents a design opportunity for innovative 3D printing solutions.
T here are still some problems that have to be answered. “One possible outcome of the cultured meat enterprise is more meat in the world, not less”. Warns Dr Stephens. Some are more outright with their criticism, Oron Catts (a writer for phys.org) states that “these initiatives are aimed at prolonging the West’s excessive consumption of meat, rather than genuine attempts to deal with the problems they claim to solve”. Another big issue for In Vitro meat is ‘Fetal Bovine Serum’ which is the what is used to ‘grow’ the meat. Currently made from the blood of fetal cows obtained from pregnant cattle at the slaughterhouse. This is of course very eco-friendly, ethical or cheap and it is this aspect which still proves a big issue for In Vitro meat’s potential future.
When shown an image of two pieces of chicken breast and asked to tell the difference. Consumers started guessing one was organic or one was genetically modified. The concept of lab grown meat isn’t on the mind of many. After being told that one of the pieces was lab grown, their opinions gave some insights into design opportunities. Many were unsure of the technology, not believing it was safe or natural, whilst others thought interesting packaging and marketing would help.
Designing to embrace the controversy attracts the adventurous consumer, and is a potential way people would try lab meat, an example of this is the ‘In Vitro meat cookbook’. Lab Grown Meat shops, restaurants or bars could be the start of general acceptance. Similar to the E-cigarette boom, starting from a small fan-base.
Other solutions could involve creating ‘medicinal’ meat by utilizing the ability for greater control of biological composition. Creating meat pills that can provide nutrients in a small package to supplement diets. Reduce traditional meat consumption and the negative impacts caused by it.
I t is likely the answer will come in a balance; a more vegetarian diet from many, supported by more Lab Meat will help reduce traditional meat demands. An increasing push for more insect sourced diet would also help problems. Designers must be there throughout to guide innovation.
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