Effect Measure

Chicken McVat

Because of bird flu I probably spend too much time thinking about the world’s industrially produced poultry. Arguably these chicken factories, with tens of thousands of birds crammed together under the most unsanitary conditions are the perfect bioreactor for virulent bird viruses, like influenza A/H5N1. They exit because chicken meat is a good source of relatively low cost protein and global appetite for Chicken McNuggets and its culinary cousins. So I guess we have to live with this vile industry. Or do we?

About a year and half ago I posted on growing meat in tissue culture. It got a very chilly reception from readers but I continue to be fascinated by the idea. It would solve a lot of problems: inhumane treatment of animals, promotion of antibiotic resistance, foodborne diseases like Salmonella, inefficient use of energy to produce protein, destruction of rain forests for agricultural purposes, heart unhealthy ingredients, etc., etc. It’s a long list. On the negative side, there’s, well, not that much. One big negative is putting food production in the hands of multinationals and big biotech companies. But they already have their greedy hands on the food spigot. And why couldn’t meat be produced in backyard or kitchen bioreactors? Better than an infected chicken running around the house.

The idea is pretty simple although carrying it out seems to be difficult. We already grow cells in tissue culture in bottles or vats where cells are bathed by nutrient and multiply by binary fission. Influenza virus is grown by inoculating such a tissue culture with a clinical specimen. Instead of using the cells as a culture medium we could grow muscle cells from, say a pig or a chicken, harvesting the resulting meat cells, in principle the same tissue as from a dead animal.

In principle. But there seem to be some pretty tough problems to solve. The two biggest, as far as I can see from a quick perusal of the burgeoning literature, are finding a suitable nutrient to grow the cells in; and then growing tissue that has the proper texture for being a meat substitute. Animal meat is not just muscle cells but a complicated structure also containing connective tissue, blood and blood vessels, nerves and fat. Just growing up masses of identical cells isn’t sufficient. You have to reproduce an architecture.

There seem to be quite a few groups working on various aspects of the cultured meat problem but nothing appears to be close to market. When the first stuff hits the food store shelves it will probably be in the form of processed meats like sausages, hot dogs and boneless chicken breasts or nuggets. The idea of growing a sirloin steak seems a long way off. But who knows? Maybe these enthusiasts will find a rich steakholder (sorry).

If you are interested in the subject, there is a non-profit research consortium working on meat substitutes, including cultured meat. At its website you can read their pitch and find links to some popular and technical articles on the subject.

Bon apetit.

Comments

  1. #1 Joe Six Pack
    April 16, 2008

    It doesn’t have to taste like chicken. It just has to be tasty. They better not name it Soylent Green.

  2. #2 JJackson
    April 16, 2008

    Hmmm MDCK-burgers yummy.

    “And why couldn’t meat be produced in backyard or kitchen bioreactors?” What odds would you give that BigAgri manage to lobby for this as not being suitable for small scale production on health grounds.

    ‘The public may accidently poison themselves, in the interest of public safety it is much safer if all production is under the infallible bio-safety of MegaAgri Inc.`

  3. #3 wazza
    April 16, 2008

    Don’t knock the big chicken farms, the chickens on ours (back when my family did that sort of thing) were fairly happy and healthy. Losses amongst the chickens were almost entirely due to congenital defects, if I remember correctly.

    But yeah, vat meat is going to be great when they work it out. For one thing, it’s more efficient, so it’ll be cheaper, so students like me can eat more steak!

  4. #4 decrepitoldfool
    April 16, 2008

    I love the idea of vat meat. A tender, juicy steak full of Omega-3 and good for my cholesterol, and no cows living miserable days in a feed lot? Sign me up.

  5. #5 gilmore
    April 16, 2008

    How long does it take to grow a 1/4 pound of cultured chicken?

    Could you add a microwave to the kitchen bioreactor, so that it heats it up too??

    .

  6. #6 Farmer
    April 16, 2008

    Don’t we already have tofu?

  7. #7 Left_Wing_Fox
    April 16, 2008

    Yeah, gives a whole new meaning to Tube Steak. I had considered this when I was taking biology and came to largely the same conclusions.

    However; a sirloin steak is actually one of the easier steaks to recreate, since it’s relatively lean and boneless. The hardest to recreate are cheap cuts like ribs and shoulders. Humans developed braising and stewing to convert cheap gristly chunks to tough meat into delicious geletin-rich offerings like stews, pot roasts, ribs and southern barbecue.

    The ability to quickly and cheaply raise chickens for meat has made chicken stews like Coq Au Vin rarities. If we start replacing cows with cultured meat farms, we might turn USDA-prime steaks into McDonald’s food, and pot-roast into a luxury item.

  8. #8 Crawford Kilian
    April 16, 2008

    I well recall the idea of cultured chicken flesh in Pohl and Kornbluth’s 1953 novel The Space Merchants, a prophetic vision of an overpopulated world run by ad agencies. In a factory where the hero is imprisoned, the workers are fed slices of Chicken Little, a mass of tissue grown in a vat.

  9. #9 carl
    April 16, 2008

    So soylent green is chicken? :-)

  10. #10 revere
    April 16, 2008

    crof: I read that when I was a kid, but didn’t remember that part. Interestingly, NASA is one of the main funders of the cultured meat effort as they need to figure out how to feed people on long space flights. I guess Tang isn’t enough!

  11. #11 Susan Och
    April 16, 2008

    I’m rethinking the food chain yet again after reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

    I was startled by his description of growing corn, even though I’ve seen corn growing all my life. I had never considered how corn is totally dependent on nitrogen fertilizer and how nitrogen fertilizer is produced from fossil fuels. When you connect the dots and think of corn and oil as interchangeable commodities, it fundamentally changes the economy of food.

    In my own yard, I am working towards keeping a smaller flock of chickens, a flock sized to live more on household food scraps and yard waste and less on expensive corn and soy based feed.

    The cultured meat website is sketchy as to the source of their raw materials, but I’m wondering if cultured meat is yet another corn-based (thus fossil fuel-based) food.

    As for making cultured meat at home? I’m pretty handy, but half the time I can’t even get yogurt to culture in a predictable fashion.

  12. #12 Lab Cat
    April 16, 2008

    Quorn?

    More popular in the UK than in the US, but it is pretty versatile.

  13. #13 herman
    April 16, 2008

    The profit motive will assure factory farming continues. As for the UN:
    The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization blames this recent, rapid emergence of increasingly dangerous flu viruses on the industrialization of the poultry sector. [34] By following the U.N.’s advice to “combat” the role of factory farming, we may reduce the likelihood of the emergence of at least hypervirulent strains like H5N1. If humanity stopped repopulating broiler chicken sheds that can hold tens of thousands of birds in each individual warehouse-like building, within weeks there would be billions fewer opportunities within which viruses like H5N1 could mutate.

    It took 11 years for the Spanish Flu virus to cause a pandemic, starting in 1918. If factory farming continues, it is possible H5N1 could produce a pandemic soon, since factory farming allows the virus many oportunities to mutate, infecting both birds and humans.

  14. #14 Alexis Madrigal
    April 16, 2008

    Over at Wired, we just wrote up the first symposium on In Vitro Meat, which took place in Norway last week.

    http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2008/04/invitro_meat

  15. #15 Tskala
    April 16, 2008

    I find the idea fascinating and a great solution to many of the problems currently facing meat production in agribusiness. But I don’t know how marketable it will be. I just broached the subject to my roommate and the look on her face said it all. She apparently would rather contend with antibiotic-laden meats and bovine spongiform encephalitis than this because it’s “not natural” (let’s hope she never needs in-vitro fertilization). In a culture where food that has merely been irradiated has a difficult time gaining public trust, I doubt this will be commercially viable in less than 150 years.

  16. #16 Ben M
    April 16, 2008

    It’s easy to say, “Oh, once it’s perfected it’ll be cheaper than regular chickens.” That’s not at all obvious. Regular chickens take up a lot of space, they eat lots of feed, they have to be chopped up (with attendant cost, waste, scraps) before you get saleable meat.

    But those are all cheap, relatively raw resources. For example, the space in which you grow chickens is put together with wire mesh and angle irons and corrugated sheet metal; a team of comparatively cheap laborers can put such a thing together. The bioreactor idea is to replace that with a small amount of space filled with … an extremely complex array of sterile lab-grade stainless steel vessels and plumbing. Assembled by well-paid, specialized technicians. Is a 100-liter sterile bioreactor really cheaper to build than a 100 cages in a big shed?

    Chicken feed is made by taking grains and whatnot straight from the farm, washing it, and dumping it into a grinder with a scoop of antibiotics. The chickens eat a (comparatively) large amount of this. The bioreactor “farm” will replace a large amount of cracked corn with a smaller amount of … a sterile medium made with Millipore water, reagent-grade glucose, and 50 expensive enzymes and buffers. Is it really cheaper to make a chicken breast out of 100 grams of ultrapure glucose than out of 1000 g of cracked corn?

    And then there’s the processing. A regular chicken needs to be killed, plucked, and cut up; the result is a collection of legs, thighs, and breasts of somewhat varied sizes and shapes, which might demand another trimming or grinding machine before you have a final product. You have to site the farm in the Midwest and ship products out to the coasts. Meanwhile, the bioreactor meat-slabs merely have to be extracted from their vessels; they may well be McNugget-shaped from birth and grown close to their destinations. So that sounds like savings all around—but I really doubt that this is the bulk of the cost of a chicken breast.

    So, even if the bioengineering succeeds, I have a hard time seeing where this is going to actually save money. I’m 100% in favor of eliminating antibiotics from livestock, but this really doesn’t sound like the way to go about it.

  17. #17 randy
    April 16, 2008

    sorry, but idea is stupid, not fascinating.

    You don’t think that cultured meat is going to be grown “antibiotic free” do you?

    ever try to culture cells with out antibiotics on industrial scale?

    do you expect cultures to be done in defined media? again not on industrial scale.

    go vegan or eat local. No need to for high cost high tech “meat”

  18. #18 paiwan
    April 16, 2008

    This is an interesting and important topic.

    If we can not convert ourselves and the whole world into vegetarians, then we need to plan our meat production properly now, before too late.

    As far as safety is concerned, aquaculture production is the safest. At this moment, there is no record of aquatic virus infecting human beings. So, aquaculture production at least secures the safe sources of meat supply for us for the time being. ( Nevertheless, the viral infections in aquaculture production are serious damages to cultured species very often.)

    Among the terrestrial live stocks, bird flu in poultry is one of the biggest threats; there are several others, for instance Ebola and mad cow potentially exist in mammalian ones.

    As far as I know the possible solutions in preventing viral infections are; adopting bio-security system and screening virus free seeds ( so called SPF: Specific Pathogen Free), or selectively breeding resistant strain ( so called SPR: Specific Pathogen Resistance).

    I have been involved with shrimp SPR program for years and have noted the pragmatic solution in reducing viral damages very lately. I tend to believe that perhaps in poultry production, this strategy of selective breeding is applicable. I personally favor the SPR strategy.

  19. #19 K
    April 16, 2008

    In case any of you haven’t heard, we are at or close to Peak Oil production. When that point is hit, from there on the world will produce less oil each year – note as with picking apple trees, one picks the easy fruit first. The amount of oil in the ground is not as important as how much you can get out at once. Further the hard to get oil takes more oil or other fossil fuel to get it out of the ground (such as oil sands and shale oil). The world meanwhile keeps adding humans. All this adds up to the fact that it may not be long until NONE of us can eat animal protein – as our food industry is based on fossil fuels for running equipment, fertilizer and transport.

    Better get used to eating grains and beans, perhaps insects and well maybe a rat or two for animal protein.

    The end is nigh, not the Apocalypse but just the end of cheap and abundant oil and the way of life it gave to some of the 6+ billion on the planet.

  20. #20 Mark
    April 16, 2008

    This kind of food will probably run into a problem when it tastes almost but not exactly like whatever it is supposed to be (chicken, beef, etc). If it is something that tastes about as good, but not so similar, people will probably accept it more easily, sort of like an uncanny valley property.
    It would probably be most practical commercially to insert some photosynthesis genes into the culture, so green (both senses of the word) meat could be grown in long transparent tubes, with only water and CO2 being pumped in, rather than the expensive, highly pure compounds Ben M mentioned.

  21. #21 Lea
    April 16, 2008

    It’s like nearly everything else in the world K, take it to the end, squeeze the last bit of juice out of the lemon.

    No doubt Jatropha has been mentioned here before?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biofuels_in_India

  22. #22 K
    April 16, 2008

    Lea, using up fertile soil to grow food for vehicles is about as stupid an idea as anyone has come up with – already the ethanol idiocy is resulting in higher prices for human food and animal food. Food riots have started in many countries. Poor people in haiti are eating mud cookies (mud,a bit of oil and a bit of salt, cooked and eaten to quell the pain). So we squeeze it until the end and what does my new grandchild eat? (Had they asked I would have said don’t have a child, but they didn’t ask.) But the end may be sooner than you expect.

  23. #23 PalMD
    April 16, 2008

    Another tough problem will be infection (if one can call it that…perhaps contamination is a better word). In a live chicken, there is an immune system. In a culture, there is only what we add. Cell and tissue cultures have a nasty tendency to become contaminated and fail. What might be equally scary, or worse, would be for it to become “infected” and not fail, ending up in the market.

    This may be something that can be overcome, but it strikes me as a toughie.

    (Parenthetically ((you can tell by the ())), I’d eat it if it were deemed safe).

  24. #24 Lea
    April 16, 2008

    Hear what you’re saying K and I too tend to gravitate towards the conspiracy theory side of things. There’s no doubt we’re in for a huge fall.
    The sooner the better, I hate waiting!

    Congrats on the new grandbaby, hear what you’re saying there too.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jatropha_oil

    Jatropha curcus is a drought-resistant perennial, growing well in marginal/poor soil. It is easy to establish, grows relatively quickly and lives, producing seeds for 50 years.
    Jatropha grows wild in many areas of India and even thrives on infertile soil. A good crop can be obtained with little effort.

  25. #25 victoria
    April 16, 2008

    A most unappetising read. If you can’t tear off a leg, or fight over the crispy skin, or pop a pope’s nose, it definitely is not finger lick-en good!

  26. #26 Torbj�rn Larsson, OM
    April 17, 2008

    Interesting how speculations in a prospective future technology gets afflicted with concerns that current technology doesn’t. For example, IIRC someone noted that for instance cabbage is so filled with natural protective poisons (~ 50 of them) that it would perhaps be considered unsafe to eat if health agencies were supposed to judge veridically on traditional food stuff.

    I think this is interesting and can’t see much inherent problems. (I assume eventual initial lack of bacterias to appropriately populate our intestines and stimulate our immune system will be made up for later in the production chain. OTOH if todays cell culturing need antibiotics it doesn’t seem to be much of a concern.)

    But I don’t see the way to the market. Sure, simpler variants could initially be an additive to sausages. But will it contribute qualities in proportion to cost?

    As long as simpler food reactors doesn’t get into the market I won’t hold my breath on this one. I’m still waiting for my modularized desktop ethanol plant@home, as a base for cheap, cleaner, and locally produced fuels, drinks et cetera – and here there is a long range of possible technologies including pure chemical catalytic.

    already the ethanol idiocy is resulting in higher prices for human food and animal food

    I hear that speculation too, but I haven’t seen an analysis yet.

    Making ethanol out of corn is idiotic for sure, however making it out of sugar cane or beet seems to be feasible. The best method seems to be methanol production, as you can do that out of any cellulose not fit for feed, and you will get higher fuel value out of the same amount of forest, say. (Much as it pains me, because I rather see a less poisonous fuel around. But added conversion is wasteful.)

  27. #27 Ian
    April 17, 2008

    So soylent green is chicken?

    No – it just tastes like it!

    But this idea sure sounds like it will…fly!

  28. #28 Ana
    April 19, 2008

    I hear that speculation too, but I haven’t seen an analysis yet.

    Bio-fuels (biof + ethanol; excludes bio-mass, wood) account for less than 2% of world energy consumption. The effect of increasing that production can be considered minuscule or nil from an energy pov. From a food pov one should consider: the use of grain as animal feed, loss of agri. land, etc. etc.

    The flap about ethanol (different from sugar cane, beet, etc.) is due to:

    a) it is a crazy idea, independently of the food issue,

    b) Indeed, if Bush s biofuel goal of 15% biofuel use in the US at date x, were realized, almost the entire present US corn crop would be diverted (though there are arguments about that.)

    Corn or maize accounts for about 30% of world grain/cereal production. About 36% world cereals are used as animal feed. The US produces roughly 40% of the worlds corn; is the biggest corn exporter; but exports only about 20% of its production. Its dominant position, though, means that prices are set in the US. Corn is used for all kinds of things, how much is actually eaten, directly or indirectly, by humans, I don t know.

    http://www.gramene.org/species/cereals.html
    http://www.sdcorn.org/cornuse/example.cfm
    http://www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/Corn/trade.htm

  29. #29 K
    April 19, 2008

    Lea, Peak Oil is not a conspiracy theory – it is a fact – the date of its occurence is uncertain (possibly we have had a peak of output of conventional oil already) but that a finite resource will Peak in production and then we get less and less is just how things work. The continental US Peaked in the 1970′s as Hubbert predicted. The conspiracy part is to guess how much of the actions of various countries (exporters and importers) is about the Peaking or imminent peaking of easy oil.

    Non-easy oil such as shale oil and oil sands have limited flows and use quite a bit of energy to extract. So to have the same flow you need to actually produce much more (if conventional oil now takes 1 barrel to get 10, 10 barrels to use means we have to produce 11. If oil sands take 1 to get 5, then we need to have 12 to get 10 barrels. It is likely they will take 1 to get 3 or 4 and that will get worse as times goes on)

    The world currently uses about 85 million barrels of oil a day – gonna take a lot of Jatropha to match that. Even infertile soil needs some fertility to grow a plant – when you keep scarfing off the plant or part of the plant you eventually make it unsuitable to grow anything. This is why cellulostic ethanol is even worse than corn ethanol. Instead of returning corn stover and other plant wastes to the soil they would be made into fuel as well, further depleting the soil. Same with using trees and various grasses. Luckily despite all the talk, they haven’t found a way to economically do this.

    Instead of growing plants to make vehicle fuel, we need to reduce consumption and population – big time.

    The western way of life will end, progress is just about over – time for us to get used to it and try to negotiate a way down from oil, rather and cling to our consumption addition.

    Ana, thanks for your post on the subject

  30. #30 Ana
    April 20, 2008

    Peak oilers give a nice description: we are on the bumpy plateau. The top of the curve (Hubbert showed it was a normal curve, or Bell curve, though there are arguments about that, as the downslope is hypothetical) is, in its details, month o m, for ex (not smoothed) full of little bumps. The highest bump was March 2005 (predicted by Deffeyes quite a while ago) and while practically it doesn’t matter if March 2008 surpassed it, it is an interesting problem of measurement (and theory as well in fact), which is why ppl argue about the date.

  31. #31 Torbj�rn Larsson, OM
    April 30, 2008

    Catching up on old threads:

    it is a crazy idea, independently of the food issue,

    Cracy… how? Using corn is admittedly crazy, but remaining sugar crops seems to give a net.

    Same with using trees and various grasses. Luckily despite all the talk, they haven’t found a way to economically do this.

    How would that differ from using those trees to wood and paper as of today? And AFAIU wood waste is projected to be economical, so that concern doesn’t seem any more believable either.