Skirting Steak: The Case for Artificial Meat
Journalist Jeffrey Bartholet talks about his June Scientific American magazine article on the attempts to grow meat in the lab, and Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina talks about the cover piece in the May issue on radical energy solutions. Web sites related to this episode include "Inside The Meat Lab" and "7 Radical Energy Solutions".
Steve: Welcome to Scientific American's Science Talk, posted on May 17th, 2011. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast:
Bartholet: We can't imagine a world where we have seven billion people, that large numbers of those people, or increasing numbers of those people want to eat meat, and you're growing it the way we're growing it now.
Steve: That's Jeffrey Bartholet. He's a contributing editor at Newsweek, and he's the author of a story in our upcoming June issue called "Inside the Meat Lab", about the quest to grow edible meat without also growing all those other things like legs and brains and faces that go along with raising livestock. Bartholet has served as Newsweek's Washington bureau chief and its foreign editor, among other positions. I spoke to him by phone.
Steve: Let's begin with this Willem van Eelen fellow. Why don't you tell everybody a little bit about him?
Bartholet: Yeah, I mean, he's a very interesting, somewhat eccentric character who grew up in what is currently Indonesia, at the time it was a Dutch colony. He's 87 years old now. He spent time, you know, some years in Japanese prisoner of war camps in Indonesia where he was starved, and that began a kind of lifelong obsession with food, nutrition, survival and so on. When the war finished he went to Holland. He studied at the University of Amsterdam and met there a professor who had grown a bit of skeletal muscle in the laboratory. And at that point, he started to think about, you know, the idea of being able to grow meat from stem cells or from cells; to be able to grow meat in a lab as opposed to, you know, raising animals in a farm somewhere; to be able to have a lab and grow meat anywhere, you know, regardless of the environmental conditions or other factors. And this became a kind of obsession with him for many decades. He eventually wrote up some proposals for in vitro meat production. He poured his money into patents. He got, you know, some European patents, a couple of American patents eventually, and with part of a group that got money from the Dutch government in 2005,I think it was, €2 million to explore the idea of being able to grow in vitro meat and to produce meat, you know, outside of the animal. And you know, he was kind of the inspiration for that project.
Steve: You have a really amazing quote from Winston Churchill, of all people, from 1932. So people have clearly been thinking about this for a while. "Fiftyyears hence we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under suitable medium." So that's Winston Churchill in 1932.
Bartholet: Right. There was a lot of interest in this back in that era, but it didn't really lead to anything. Nobody really pursued it, nobody was really thinking about trying to do anything on any kind of commercial scale. It was more, sort of, it became, it was more in the domain of science fiction and movies and that sort of thing. But, you know, van Eelen had this obsession. He kept on thinking about it; you know, he's an eccentric character. He's had a lot of jobs in his career, everything from selling newspapers to owning cafés and art galleries and so on, but he just, sort of, kept at this. And now there's actually quite a lot of interest in doing this because, you know, the conditions have changed a lot. I mean, the conditions are much more suitable now, not just in terms of the scientific knowledge we have these days you can apply to it, but also the environmental conditions. I mean, one of the real reasons that people feel compelled—the scientists involved feel compelled—to do the research in this area is because, you know, something like 18 percent of greenhouse gases that are produced come from the livestock industry. And meanwhile, you know, the population of the planet is growing. Now, I think it was 2 billion back in 1940, now it's seven billion. And then the number of people who are eating meat is growing by leaps and bounds and is expected to double, I believe roughly, by 2050.
Steve: And another factor you mention in the article is 30 percent of the land on the Earth that isn't covered with ice is used for grazing livestock and growing animal feed. So that's a lot of land that could theoretically be freed up to, as you say in the article, for example, growing forests that could then pull carbon out of the atmosphere.
Bartholet: Well, right. I mean, you know, the people that are involved in this, you know, imagine a future where, you know, you can take some stem cells from a farm animal, grow them and produce meat. You could do it and, you know, some people even mentioned to me the idea of having little urban meat labs. You could have them, you know, locally. So you wouldn't, also the shipping costs and all, the environmental cost of shipping stuff all around the globe, also would potentially be reduced. So they see this as, you know, something that's necessary. I mean, they can't imagine a world where we have seven billion people, that large numbers of those people or increasing number of those people want to eat meat, and you're growing it the way we're growing it now. If 30 percent of the ice-free land is used to grow animals now, imagine if, you know, you need double the production of meat to meet the demands, you know; how much land then would you need to use? What kind of factory farming methods would be, you know, would be involved in order to produce those kinds of quantities of meat? So they see this as an imperative. You know, you just, you're going to have to come up with some kind of scientific solution, and they see this as it, and they wish they could get more money and more funding to be able to pursue it.
Steve: So why don't we go over what some of the roadblocks are that have kept this from becoming a reality to this date?
Bartholet: Yeah. There are challenges, as they would put it, at every stage of the process. You know, ideally you'd be able to take embryonic stem cells or adult stem cells and grow them, you know, ideally they just double and redouble infinitely, in the case of embryonic stem cells. And so, you know, again theoretically, you could take one stem cell line and create tens of thousands of tons of food. You could feed the world. On the other hand, the problem is, you know, with embryonic stem cells, they haven't been able to get stem cell lines from livestock animals that can proliferate in that way, without just sort of veering up in their own direction and turning into, instead of muscle, turning into brain tissue or bone tissue or something else. And with adult stem cells, they don't have the same capacity of self-renewal to double and redouble infinitely. So, you know, they're working on that, that's one problem. The other problem or one of the other problems or challenges is the medium that you'd grow the cells in is very expensive now. The best media available is made from fetal calf serum or horse serum, and you know, that's sort of a nonstarter. In order to produce a pound of meat, you know, at this stage, using that kind of media would be like $50,000 a pound, I think. So again, they have to come up with some kind of media that is much cheaper, and then they have to figure out ways to bulk up the muscle cell. There are just challenges at every step of the process, and they are working on all of those. They don't, you know, the people that are involved in this don't see them in anyway as insurmountable. Some have said to me that it's not really a scientific challenge as much as it's a technical challenge. But they're not anywhere near, you know, they're not there yet and they're not going to be there soon.
Steve: Let's talk about bulking up because, you know, when you're trying to make meat out in the real world, I mean, if you're trying to make meat, if you're trying to grow your own muscles, you exercise. You can run, you can lift weights, but if you have this pile of cells in a Petri dish, how do you get that pile of cells to grow as if it were somehow getting exercise?
Bartholet: Yeah, it's a, you know, they have ways. You know, theoretically. You can use electrical stimuli, but that only tends to bulk them up by about 10 percent, which isn't sufficient and it's also expensive. I mean, if you're using electricity when you're trying to bulk these things up, that sort of defeats the purpose of reducing greenhouse gases. You know, just by creating tension points, so the cells have to, sort of, grab onto something, you know, that leads to a certain level of bulking up. The most promising possible means is to use micro-pulses of chemicals; this is the way the body does it essentially, and these little tiny micro-pulses of chemicals tend to serve to bulk up the muscle. But you know, they haven't got anywhere near being able to do that, and they also have to create a, kind of, something that's more three dimensional. Right now they can create very thin layers of muscle tissue that are a few layers thick or something, but beyond that, you need a three-dimensional kind of a structure that provides nutrients in and out and removes waste, keeps the cells alive essentially. So, you know, they also have to figure out how to do that.
Steve: You know, there are parts of the article that not only sound like science fiction but sound like, kind of, Woody Allen science fiction like Sleeper. This sentence jumped out at me: "By that time an American scientist had already succeeded in growing a piece of fish fillet in a lab."
Bartholet: Yeah, I mean, you know, it's funny and to some people, you know, there are somewhere else in the article I talk about the ick factor or the yuck factor. There are some people who think about the plan and so forth whose initial response is, you know, "No way! Ick!" You know, "It sounds scary." And there are people now that are working on that aspect. Because one of the concerns is, how do you make this commercially viable? I mean, you know, it’s one thing to develop the science to the point where you can produce this stuff. And then the second stage is, if you can get there and you can produce this meat in some kind of commercially viable form—in other words, relatively cheaply, you know— then how, you know, can you sell it? You know, will people buy this stuff? Will they go to the store and buy, you know, in vitro meat? And, you know, a lot of people go, "Yuck," you know, "it sounds scary." It's a little bit, you know, people tend to identify it with genetically modified food, and again there's no genetic modification that goes on in this process; or they identify it with things that are scary because they don't understand. But somebody now in Holland has got some funding, and they're doing a study on that, you know—what is the market? You know, how will the market respond to this, and what would need to be done in order to market it; to market the product in a way that, you know, where people would actually be enticed to buy it. You know, some people imagine the day in which you'll buy cruelty-free meat; you know, they'll come up with some marketing campaigns that make it, I don't know about more appetizing, but more appealing. This meat, you know, one of the benefits of it, you know, no animals get killed. You know, you're taking stem cells out then you're producing the meat; you're not slaughtering anything. So People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has supported this research.
Steve: You know, there's, you also raised the possibility, which you don't go into in the article, but if you were a fan of particularly exotic food—for example, elephant steaks.
Steve: Elephant steaks could theoretically be really easy to get; as easy as beef is today.
Bartholet: Yeah, exactly. But you wouldn't kill any elephant to get it. Elephant steaks, tiger steaks, lion steaks; you know, you name it, you could do it, theoretically.
Steve: You know, I got the impression from the article that you may think that, let's say 20 years from now the economic forces and the environmental issues will have reached the point where a lot of the barriers, in terms of just putting in the work and the money to do this, have been overcome because it becomes an imperative.
Bartholet: Potentially, and that's what the scientists involved certainly think. One of them said, "You know, I don't see any other way. You know, I don't see how we can sustain the planet and remain –meat eaters unless we find a way to make this work." Now obviously the scientists have some, they have an interest in here—they want to get money, they want to get funding and they feel they haven't gotten enough. But you know the way, you know, again, you look at that just the basic trend lines: population increasing, number of people eating meat increasing, a doubling of the number of people who are eating meat by 2050, and yet we're already with the meat that we are producing now, that's 18 percent of the greenhouse gases that we're producing. It's more than the total global transportation sector that's produced by the livestock industry. So, you know, how is that sustainable? That's what these people, you know, will ask you: How is that sustainable? It's not. There's got to be a different way, and they say this is it.
Steve: You know, and as for the yuck factor, the ick factor, if people will eat a lobster, I think they'll eat anything.
Bartholet: (laughter) You would think so and, you know, there are a lot of other things that people eat all over the world. And you know, what these folks say again, is "If the people that are buying meat out there in the world had any idea of the way in which meat is produced; if they had a look at, you know, inside a factory farm where animals are raised in their own feces and, you know, slaughtered and then ground up and so on. You know, actually this process that they're proposing is sterile, potentially has none of the, you know, disease risks that the factory farms have. And you could produce meat that is actually designer meat potentially. You know, the level of fat, the level of this taste or that taste or this element or that element would all be, you know, a factored into the engineering of the meat. Again, we are a long way from that. This is something that people are thinking about it and that is theoretically possible but right now they still just have to figure out how to produce meat and then how to produce something that not only is muscle tissue, which is what meat is, but has, you know, similar taste and texture and all of that.
Steve: The article is "Inside the Meat Lab" and we were talking to Jeffrey Bartholet. That's in the June Scientific American. Thanks very much.
Bartholet: Thank you.
Steve: Bartholet's article on the meat lab—not to be confused with the Meat Mathematics Institute, which only exists on Burger King commercials—is available now on our Web site. That June issue hits the stands in a few days, but the May issue is still out, and I spoke to Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina about the cover article and her accompanying editorial.
Steve: Tell me about your editorial in the current issue of Scientific American.
DiChristina: We were talking about energy technologies and, you know this is not unusual for Scientific American; we always are talking about energy technologies. But what's different about these energy technologies is, we use the word radical—you know "Seven Radical, Energy Technologies." And what do I mean by that? Well, radical in this case are things that are potentially very useful and very helpful in various arenas of the big energy challenge, and I'll say the global energy challenge that we are all facing. But they also have a high risk of failure and that makes them very interesting, and part of what I think might be a rational portfolio of different kinds of approaches you take to solving energy problem. We have enormous energy needs as a country and as a globe and we have enormous problems associated with those energy needs, climate not the least of them. How you get that energy? You know, the environmental impacts of acquiring the fuel or digging the hydrocarbons. And what's interesting about these technologies is that they are all ways to create greater efficiency in one way or another.
Steve: And any well balanced portfolio will have a small amount of high-risk but potentially high-payoff parts to it.
DiChristina: Correct. I mean we, I spoke with the great, the interesting investor and advisor for Scientific American, named Vinod Khosla, a couple of months ago. And that interview was, sort of, inspiring at least for me. Vinod Khosla said that he really only wanted to invest in high-risk big ideas because they are the only way that you're going to get beyond any incremental advance of some kind. And, you know, while I don't know enough about it personally to say that that's the only thing I would invest in, I think what you're saying is exactly right, that in any portfolio of approaches you want to have sort of—we'll call it the penny stocks, right? They are tried and true, but they'll give you a little bit back. You invest a little and you will get a little back. And that creates a, kind of a, steady state of functionality for energy systems. And you want to invest in some things where the payoff could be great if only it worked. And so the seven technologies that we talk about in this cover story of this issue have a high risk of failure. But if they worked, it would be spectacular. One of them that springs to mind is memory technologies for different metals and different materials. And what's interesting about them is they remember a position they've been in the past. So if you flex them they'll return to that position. And that gives you a great opportunity to improve efficiency. And they could be used throughout an automotive engine to take advantage of vibration. So waste vibration could then be used to make additional energy, in effect.
Steve: That's it for this episode. Get your science news at www.ScientificAmerican.com where right on the home page you can check out Scientific American’s latest missives to Twitter and Facebook as well as the latest science news. For Scientific American's Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.