There is no pleasant way of saying this: At the moment there is nothing appetizing about the future plate of food that awaits humanity. The food of the future will arise from resource shortages, demographic increases and pangs of conscience – not exactly a recipe for gourmet culinary pleasures. The meals that will be served to our offspring and future generations will be laden with nutritional considerations and will consist of sophisticated substitutes for food as we know it.
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It's possible this food will be healthier and we might take consolation in the thought that it’s all about acquired tastes, but we’d best come to terms with the fact that this is the direction we're heading.
Alongside grasshopper delicacies, cricket tidbits and other six-legged protein, there is also the question of the future of meat for consumption. To the chagrin of its opponents and the abstemious, meat is still the main element in world food consumption. We humans spend about $750 billion annually on meat, compared to $330 billion on milk and dairy products and about $280 billion on fruits and vegetables.
However, ever since the first lab hamburger was introduced to the world four years ago, the idea of “cultured" meat has begun to take on sinew and flesh. The idea of producing real meat – not a substitute – from animal cells in the laboratory without harming the animals themselves or causing them to suffer is no longer a fantasy. It is currently being developed in startups and research institutions, arousing interest in the meat industry and among investors and government bureaucrats. The international race to create cultured meat of sufficient quality and reasonable price has begun. It's possible that when next Independence Day rolls around, we will place juicy lab-grown steaks on the grill, steaks grown without bloodshed and without harming any animals.
Last month Uma Valeti, the founder and CEO of Memphis Meats, announced with great excitement that a year after the company made history by launching its first (cultured) meatball, it did it again by successfully producing chicken and duck.
San Francisco-based Memphis Meats is probably the most advanced company in the cultured meat field. However, even if the taste and texture of Valeti’s lab schnitzel trounces the local schnitzel joint’s, it costs over $18,000 per kilogram. This is far more expensive than the schnitzel we known and love, but significantly less expensive than the first lab hamburger, which debuted in April 2013 at the cost of $325,000 for a 140-gram patty.
Israel is also a major player in the field of cultured meat, though nothing is ready for the supermarket shelves yet. On May 7, the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa will host the first Israeli international conference on the topic of cultured meat, aptly named “Future Meating.” The guest of honor will be Prof. Mark Post from Maastricht University in Holland, who presented the first cultured hamburger. Also expected is the chief scientist of Tyson Foods, the second-largest chicken meat supplier in the world which provides its products to chains like McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Among the conference's local sponsors are Soglowek Food Industries and Strauss Israel, which along with the Innovation Authority at the Economy and Industry Ministry established a food-tech incubator for entrepreneurs in the food industry about two years ago – the Kitchen FoodTech Hub.
The conference was initiated by the Modern Agriculture Foundation, which was established in 2014 with the aim of promoting and supporting research to implement the idea of cultured meat. According to Dr. Yaron Bogin, the executive director of the nonprofit, “The field of cultured meat is in its infancy and thus far worldwide investment in it has been at most a few million dollars. What we do, broadly speaking, is that we take a sample of cells from a cow or a hen, put them into bioreactors [the apparatus used for growing cells], add nutrients [chemical compounds essential for the growth of living beings] to them, cause the cells to divide and multiply and then we turn them into muscle cells, harvest them and make meatballs from them.” According to him, the problem is that “they still haven’t come up with the ability to grow cells with all the elements of the tissue.”
No prototype of cultured meat exists in Israel as of yet, but they are definitely working on it. With a little faith and luck, Haifa will be able to take pride in cultured steaks produced by the Technion along with its famous Shawarma Hazan meat restaurant.
One of the conference participants is Prof. Shulamit Levenberg, dean of the Technion’s biomedical engineering department, where a team of researchers she heads has recently begun to develop cultured meat based on cattle cells. The team doesn't intend to stop at a clump of cell culture formed into a meatball. They are going for the real thing: steak. At the end of the process they intend to produce a succulent lab steak untainted by animal suffering, equal in taste and texture to the genuine article.
“We have been working for many years now on creating muscle tissue for medical purposes, for replacing and repairing defects, with an emphasis on complex tissues consisting of a number of types of tissue," says Levenberg, an expert on tissue engineering. "The main challenge is to replace the materials suited for medical applications of tissue engineering with materials suited for food.” That is, what is good for repairing defects and injuries in stomach or thigh muscles could one day show up for lunch.
Growing meat in an apple
They have also taken up the challenge at Tel Aviv University. Prof. Amit Gefen of the biomedical engineering department is growing meat cells in apples; he is currently trying to find the variety of apple best suited to the task. He began working in the field after conducting feasibility studies for developing cultured meat for the Modern Agriculture Foundation two years ago. They have parted ways since then, but he opted to continue his academic research. According to Gefen, “Experience accumulated abroad shows that it is possible to grow cells from a mammalian source on apples because of the structure of their porosity. The pores are sort of niches that provide the mammalian cells with a protected habitat in which the biological processes necessary for one day becoming a tasty piece of steak can occur.”
These attempts show the complexity of meat and how difficult it is to replicate. Taking a cell sample and creating a culture that will make it possible for the cells to “do their thing,” as it were, is far from sufficient; the whole process requires intervention.
The main difficulty is growing a “thick” meat tissue – that is, finding a solution to the absence of blood vessels, which carry oxygen and much else to the depths of real meat tissue. This is essential in order to create the texture of real meat and not just a thin layer of meat cells in a lab Petri dish.
Post created the first lab hamburger after experiments with mouse and pig cells. He took stem cells from the muscle tissue of a cow and from them he produced satellite cells that repair damaged tissues. He grew them in a culture rich with growth materials and hormones. After the cells multiplied, Post transferred them to a dish with collagen, which served as an armature and then “starved” the cells, stimulating a reaction that caused them to become linked muscle cells.
Afterward, another process was needed to create resistance and apply pressure to the meat filaments in order to “develop muscles” and give them a texture similar to that of animal flesh. Then the flat coverings of muscle cells on the armatures were cut into very thin strips, from which Post made the patty itself. To make the lab hamburger look like the real thing, he added beet juice and spices and sautéed it in a considerable amount of butter because it didn't contain any fat cells. The process took about three months. At the end, the patty was served to tasters who said it was “close to meat.”
A dish with an agenda
The challenge of transforming a cell culture to real tissue is forcing researchers to focus on the search for a suitable armature (that is, a growth medium). Gefen chose apples as an armature but potatoes, yams and asparagus are also being considered. “It isn’t enough that the material be porous – the cells need to connect to each other,” explains Gefen. “We sowed apple cells. For them to be ready to accept the cells, first we needed to treat them. It's a complicated story.”
He explained his choice to work with quail meat – as opposed to the popular chicken or beef – by his preference for concentrating on the kinds of cells that have been less studied until now, and because it's used in haute cuisine. “These developments are costly, at least in our day," says Gefen. I don’t think the cultured meat will be sold to McDonald’s or KFC. It will be served with an agenda, and in specific places. It's important to remember that this is in its infancy and we aren’t going to be seeing cultured meat in restaurants or shops in the next several years, unless it's for public relations for commercial purposes.”
SuperMeat is another Israeli effort in the field of cultured meat. Last summer the startup raised about $230,000 in a crowdfunding campaign online. Founded at the end of 2015 by Ido Savir and Koby Barak, formerly of the Modern Agriculture Foundation, SuperMeat has set the production of cultured chicken meat as its goal. The decision was based on the research of Prof. Yaakov Nahmias of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, another one of SuperMeat's founders. Nahmias has since parted ways with the company and established an independent start-up, Future Meat Technologies, which develops lab-grown meat technology.
The crowdfunding campaign garnered public interest and media coverage but no product or prototype has been launched so far. Its founders are maintaining a veil of secrecy. “We are now at the stage of an investment round," Savir tells Haaretz. "We have a large team of researchers and all I can say at this point is that our aim is to come out with accessible cultured meat products within five years.” He is not concerned that Memphis Meats has already presented cultured meatballs and chicken and duck nuggets. “The idea is always based on the same principle: to grow cells or tissue. But the ways to get there are varied and there are tons of possibilities and technological directions,” says Savir. “At the ideological level, there is no doubt that cultured meat is the direction in which the world should be heading.”
Practically speaking, cultured meat still has a long way to go before it reaches the plate, but there are already those who are investigating how the public would take to the idea. In a Belgian study published in 2015, only 13 percent of the participants were familiar with the concept. After they received basic information, most expressed positive views: 43 percent stated they would be willing to try the new food. Only 9 percent completely rejected the idea. Two big deterrents for cultured meat came up in the study: the high cost and unfulfillment of consumers’ expectations. The researchers concluded that it would be best to wait with the meat as long as possible and only produce and market it when it is feasible to do so at a reasonable price. Only this way would it win the hearts of future consumers.