Friday, February 07, 2014

A Future of Lab-Produced Meat?

Literally predicting the future of cultured meat is of course impossible, but since August 2013's hamburger demonstration in London, where the work of Professor Mark Post's laboratory was unveiled, speculations have abounded. There are conferences and symposia on cultured meat, and the Dutch arts collective Next Nature is producing a Cultured Meat Cookbook  - actually a project meant to grow the conversation, rather than provide cooking instructions for an as-yet-unavailable ingredient.

The organization New Harvest acts as a hub connecting researchers and other interested parties, and encouraging discussions of cultured meat. We're in what Disney would call the "Imagineering" stage, in other words, and some of Silicon Valley's biggest investors are starting to contribute to the cause. If true prediction is beyond our powers, a few things do seem certain, and we can clear up a few misconceptions about cultured meat now:

  • Cultured meat is not going to appear on your supermarket shelves in 2014. Or in 2015. While no prediction is reliable, the most wildly optimistic promoters of the technology don't think it will reach markets for another ten years. Twenty seems more likely.
  • Cultured meat is animal flesh based on real animal cells, not fully synthetic or based on vegetable protein (but vegetable meat substitutes are also reaching new and impressive levels of development) The process by which cultured meat is made, is somewhat complex (you can watch a cartoon, produced for Mark Post's group, here).
  • While no animals need to be killed to harvest the cells used for cultured meat, current techniques also employ serum taken from fetal animals - truly kill-free meat would be possible if scientists devised a substitute, and some think that this is possible.

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