IDEA WATCH | JULY 2017
Imagine a culinary future with in vitro meat . . .The real thing may not be as far away as you think
By Isha Datar and Robert Bolton
Counter Culture, London’s latest in vitro micro-carnery, proves it’s the real thing. The restored 1970s-era English brewpub boasts an expansive bar of reclaimed mahogany and booths upholstered with magnificent in vitro leather. Steaks are grown to precision inside giant steel vats decorated (functionally) with illuminated green algae tanks. A disorienting mingling of global spices flavors varieties of exotic and heritage meats like boar and Berkshire, all of which are cultured on site. The large charcuterie board, consisting of mushroom-medium duck foie gras, coriander mortadella, and crispy lobes of sweetbread pairs perfectly with a shortlist of probiotic cocktails (try the rum and kombucha).
In vitro meat has the capacity to transform meat production as we know it, not only offering new and diverse types of product but also introducing an entirely new way of thinking about and interacting with food. One day, growing meat may seem as natural as making cheese or beer.
Like a bakery where bread is made, a winery where wine is made, and a brewery where beer is made, the “carnery” is where in vitro meat is made.
The farm was long the cultural ground connecting humans to our food and to our labor. Through over 10,000 years of agricultural practice, farming—food and work—was a foundation on which we developed our sense of humanity. From values such as integrity, quality, respect, and stewardship, to experiences of shared knowledge and enjoyment, to developing our relationship with land and species—and gaining a concept of the cyclical passage of time that connects us to the seasons—the farm has been our cultural rooting. Keeping farm animals played an integral role in maintaining the farm. Animal husbandry and crop cultivation were concerted activities. Animals were fed on crop residues after a crop was harvested, or on pastures that were unfit for farming. Manure was used to replenish soils. Animals were slaughtered and shared. Meat was honored and savored.
To meet and exceed consumer demands for food, the farm has been a site of cutting-edge breakthroughs in mechanical engineering, genetics, and chemistry. The craft of tending the herd evolved into processes of automation and directives. Meat production scaled to a point where it can no longer fit into a cyclical and sustainable farming system. Today most meat is produced on industrial farms where animals are bred, raised, and slaughtered for the princi-pal purpose of producing food for human beings. Crops that could feed humans are instead fed to meat animals. Fertilizer is produced in such quantities that it spoils soils rather than nourishing them. In many ways animals are treated as living, meat-producing bioreactors with human food as an input, polluting waste as an output, and various drugs, hormones, and genetic manipulations added to make the process more “efficient.” Price is the defining product characteristic, and minimizing this incurs vast external costs to the environment, animal welfare, and public health.
Further, meat is defined as a small handful of species, presented by a smaller handful of corporations. Few players, little product diversity, and a very narrow, inexpensive price range characterize the meat-production industry status quo.
In light of population increase, food insecurity, volatile food prices, environmental concerns, and changing value systems around food, it is clear that current modes of production cannot persist. For meat production to take place responsibly, we will have to significantly diversify our eating habits—and with them, our production habits. In vitro meat is one promising alternative. We don’t know enough about it yet. But we know we can make it. And we are responsible for exploring what it will mean not only for our health and environment, but also for our culture and our sense of humanity. How should we feel about interacting with lab-grown meat?
If we’re comfortable treating meat animals like bioreactors, and engineering them strictly for the purpose of maximal protein production, then perhaps we can go a step further. Meat is simply a collection of muscle, fat, and connective tissues. Rather than raise an entire complex organism only to harvest these tissues, why not start at the basic unit of life, the cell, to produce meat? In vitro meat is meat, created in a bioreactor rather than in an animal.
A few things are required for making meat in vitro: a cell line, a medium to feed the cells, a bioreactor where cell growth can take place, and a structure upon which the cells can attach and grow. Each of these elements allows for limitless variations of technique and process. The room for deviation bridges science with craft, enabling in vitro meat makers to create unique products with unique characteristics and features. At the fictional in vitro meat restaurant Counter Culture that begins this essay, the boar meat could be made with adult stem cells collected from wild boar, cultured in an algae medium. Grown in a rotating wall bioreactor on a tubular scaffold, the cell stretches to produce a lean, grained meat. The mushroom-medium duck foie gras could be made from a co-culture of duck fat and liver cells in a mushroom-based medium, 3D-printed onto a bioabsorbable scaffold to produce a fatty, smooth, and cruelty-free foie gras. The flexibility of in vitro meat production can change and diversify the ways people consume and interact with their food.
For meat production to take place responsibly, we will have to significantly diversify our eating habits—and with them, our production habits.
As it stands today, a thick interface separates the experience of eating from the process of food production. Industrial farms are located far from the eyes of consumers, and knowledge of what occurs in these farms is limited in the wider public. While consumers are mostly disconnected from the realities of where their food comes from, marketers continue to romanticize the ideal farm of yore, substituting images of agriculture in place of ones of industry, dropping visual cues to the rural farm on packaging, advertising, and in retail displays. These signifiers remind us of the core human values and sense of community that we’ve historically associated with the farm. Indeed, when done well, you can taste the crafted freshness. In the eyes of diners and marketers alike, the distinction between fantasy and reality is apparently trivial, if not entirely nonexistent. We buy into rustic theaters of “artisanal,” “small-batch,” and “hand-crafted” cuisine, though the associations we have with these words may bear no resemblance to the actual back-end production processes. The theater of branding is effective enough that we’re relieved of our responsibility to confront the truths of our food. In vitro meat may play into this theater—fitting among the existing symbols, textures, and cues that make us comfortable with artifice—while breaking down its fourth wall, chipping away the layers, so that like the farmer, the baker, the butcher, and the brewer, we can interface directly with the realities of food production.
The science and art of culturing cells to produce meat has been called “carniculture.” Like a bakery where bread is made, a winery where wine is made, and a brewery where beer is made, the “carnery” is where in vitro meat is made. Carniculture might be dressed with similar connotations and aesthetics to the craft-brew and farm-to-table movements.
We have to ask not only how in vitro meat products nourish our bodies, but how the process of making them nourishes human culture and fits in with our sense of a modern humanity. How, going forward, can the manufacturer of in vitro meat achieve the symbolic status of the farmer, the baker, and the small-batch brewer? How can the carnery, like the bakery, the winery, or the brewery become an impetus for human culture? Though it uses mammalian cell cultures rather than yeast cultures, a carnery has the potential to look very similar to these facilities—beer breweries in particular.
At the carnery of the future, large stainless-steel tanks house the biological processes that are transforming organic ingredients into food products. Conditions such as temperature and pressure are controlled and manipulated. Inputs and outputs are carefully measured. The work environment is clean and safe. But it doesn’t feel like sterile science. It feels crafted, artisanal—because it is.
As with beer, the basic production scheme for producing in vitro meat can be modified and adapted in endless ways to make products that vary in appearance, aroma, taste, and mouthfeel. This makes for an industry comprised of many diverse products and players, and production on many different scales. A brewery can be massive with several stories–tall bioreactors, located near city limits—or it can be smaller and situated in urban areas. A brewpub restaurant may choose to brew seasonal offerings in-house, while a DIY enthusiast may wish to try his or her hand at making the ultimate personalized brew with a home-brewing operation.
Imagine that within the stainless-steel tanks at a brewery, microbrewery, brewpub, or basement, meat—rather than beer—is being brewed.
Low-cost, mass-produced meat is cultured in massive carneries in rural areas. Because the risk of bacterial contamination and viral epidemics is far decreased without the use of animals, the meat production business is no longer at risk of recalls, workers are no longer at risk of health issues, and the local rural environment is no longer at risk of water and air pollution.
Mid-range in vitro meat is made in local carneries in urban areas. These carneries host school and travel tours, educating the public on the art and science of carniculture. Because growing meat in vitro does not require the large tracts of land that factory farms require, this carnery is located in a skyscraper that once contained office space. Algae tanks surround the outer surface of the tower, reaping the unshaded sun available several stories up from ground level.
High priced meats are “micro-cultured” in trendy neighborhoods at boutique carnery pubs such as the fictional Counter Culture described at the beginning of this essay. These small-batch facilities create various seasonal offerings, depending on which media ingredients are available and which cell cultures and nutrient profiles are in vogue. Forward-thinking restaurants offer signature meats cultured in-house, paired with a house wine. Some chefs focus on nutrition profiles, some focus on traditional “heritage breed” lines and others focus on biomolecular gastronomy. They test the limits of carniculture by culturing rare or extinct species, co-culturing multiple cell types or developing unique, never-before-seen cell lines.
Communities of home carniculturists, who began as foodies and DIY bio enthusiasts, swap techniques and recipes at cultured-meat cook-offs, fairs, and night markets. Carniculture bloggers post photo-graphy, data, and other media documenting their materials, methods, and meals online. The home carnery movement spawns carniculture specialty shops, cell-culture babysitting services, protocol-swapping websites, cell banks, and special-interest magazines. Hobbyists seeking to turn their passion into a profession have a variety of certification and apprenticeship programs to choose from to help them join a major carnery or start one of their own.
In contrast to industrial farming, meat-production methods go from secretive to celebrated. Meat-production facilities go from vast to vertical. The meat-production industry moves from the hands of few to the hands of many. And people grow more authentically connected to the origins and creation stories of what they eat.
For this new industry to exist, some conditions have to be met in the early days of discovery and development.
The science has to remain fairly open, transparent, and publicly accessible. With a population of scientists scattered about the planet interested in making in vitro meat a reality, an “open source” approach to it will accelerate development of the technology. Intellectual property protection has a place in the industry at some point, but heavy, prohibitive patent protection early on could stunt this new industry before it has a chance to flourish. Culturing in vitro meat involves a level of “art” and technique that comes only with experience and familiarity with processes and materials. As such, patent protection will be complemented by trade secrets, secret recipes, and the carniculturist’s distinct artistry and prowess.
Development needs to coincide with public conversation about meat, meat production, carniculture, and food science. Consumers need and want to know about the origins of their food. The new science of carniculture must be developed responsibly, driven by discourse from the beginning. This is much more likely to happen if research is funded and conducted publicly, openly engaging researchers, DIY bio enthusiasts, and students to address scientific hurdles. Creating a food politic that tackles resource use, the environment, public health, and animal welfare should be a cooperative movement.
In vitro meat is simply meat created outside the animal. Cultured meat and carcass meat are the same product, though created through different processes. The potential for carniculture to introduce a more humane and sustainable meat industry is undeniably compelling. With the right set of conditions in place during the development of cultured-meat science, carniculture can reduce the need for, or entirely displace, factory farming. By embracing transparency and creating a culinary attitude, the in vitro meat industry can become more diverse, responsible, and viable than the current meat industry. A new set of food values emerges, unique from and yet akin to those we associate with the family farm. A future with in vitro meat is indeed a cultured future.