A cruelty-free, cultured meat is on the horizon that will help save a large percentage of the 27 billion animals slaughtered each year for food.
Nicholas Genovese, PhD - Research Summary
As a visiting scholar at the University of Missouri, I am currently developing methods for in vitro specification of ungulate pluripotent stem cells toward differentiated tissue lineages. Potential applications for this research include cultured meat production systems, model systems for regenerative medicine and basic livestock developmental biology.
I completed my doctoral degree at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where I characterized the role of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) E7 protein during viral infection of the epidermis and cancer. HPV-associated cancers are the second leading cause of cancer death in women worldwide and the E7 protein is functionally compulsory for the progression of HPV-associated cancers. My graduate education was preceded by industrial internships at King Pharmaceuticals and Novavax, Inc. where I was involved respectively in the process development of influenza and HPV vaccine manufacturing.
According to PETA “Raising animals on factory farms is cruel and ecologically devastating. Eating animals is bad for our health, increasing the risk of developing various diseases and illnesses, including heart attacks, strokes, cancer, diabetes, and obesity.” Given those facts, the idea of cruelty free cultured meats sounds like a viable alternative.
Having been a vegetarian for years I have to admit that sometimes I miss the variety that meat adds to a diet so this subject is especially interesting to me. Dr. Genovese, answers critical questions to his important research that should turn skeptics into believers.
Kris Notaro: What in your professional career has led you to research methods for cultured meat production?
Nicholas Genovese: Growing up in the agribusiness and raising farm animals destined for slaughter opened my eyes to the efficiency limitations and ethical issues associated with animal agriculture. While in industry and graduate school, experiences with various cell culture methods led me to consider the possibility of using established principles to cultivate farm animal tissues as edible ‘meat’ and potentially overcome certain limitations of conventional meat production systems. In conjunction with ongoing advances in stem cell biology and tissue engineering, sponsorship by PETA has enabled my pursuit of this research objective.
KN: What exactly is “in vitro meat” or “cultured meat”?
NG: Perhaps the broadest definition of cultured meat (i.e. in vitro meat) could be ‘dietary nutrition cultivated from animal stem cells and harvested independently of the growth and slaughter of animals’. When produced, cultured meat will be cultivated under aseptic conditions from a self-renewing animal stem cell ‘seed stock’ source into an edible tissue. The first cultured meat products available to consumers will most likely lack the complex structure of whole meat cuts and be used as ground meat. A long-term goal for cultured meat is to produce whole tissues such as muscle, liver and fat from poultry, swine and cattle. Alternatively, artesian meats of novel species stem cell composition or combinations thereof could be cultivated according to consumer preference. To the extent cultured meat is produced in a manner free from animal-derived components, it will be a wholesome, nutritious, delicious and authentic meat distinct from conventional meat products harvested from slaughtered animals.
KN: It has been reported that the livestock industry produces more greenhouse gases than the global transportation sector. Will cultured meat reduce greenhouse gas emissions? To put it a different way, what resources will go into cultured meat and what impact will production have on the environment?
NG: Great questions. A life cycle assessment study that compared the environmental impacts of beef, sheep, pork and poultry production to a cultured meat production model was recently published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The study estimated that during cultured meat production, fresh water use would be reduced up to 96%, land requirements would be reduced up to 99% and greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced up to 96%. Overall, energy requirements would be reduced as well. Land use is an especially critical consideration in ecologically sensitive regions where livestock operations encroach upon wilderness and endanger native biodiversity. Whether cultured meat can reduce greenhouse gas emissions depends upon the actual environmental impacts of commercial cultivation processes which have yet to be established. If environmental impacts are reduced during commercial cultivation, cultured meat must be accepted by consumers as a substitute for conventionally produced meats in order for the environmental benefits to be realized.
KN: What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of cultured meat?
NG: The potential advantages of cultured meat production are multi-faceted. I will discuss only a few key points.
An important consideration is the amount of feed required to produce a unit of meat (i.e. feedstock conversion efficiency). Three to eight pounds of dry grain are required to generate one pound of terrestrial farmed animal body weight. As the majority of the animal body weight is water and by-product, the actual feedstock conversion of grain to dry-weight edible meat is far less efficient. Efficiency is lost due to incomplete absorption of feedstock nutrients during animal digestion, superfluous metabolic energy expenditures associated with animal growth and concomitant resource requirements for by-product development. Though by-products can be processed and sold, they are economically limiting to the value of the animal carcass. In contrast, a cultured meat production system has the potential to circumvent the limitations of animal digestion and development through nutrient provision directly to edible tissues. Feedstock conversion efficiency gained from growing the meat alone instead of the entire animal would translate to increased feedstock grain availability for biofuel production and feeding people. Nearly one billion individuals worldwide are undernourished today, yet the global consumer demand for meat is expected to increase 60% by 2050 due to population growth and increasing affluence in developing nations. In 2011, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported that food prices had reached record levels. According to Oxfam International, food prices are expected to double by 2030 from current levels. Cultured meat production may play dual roles in satisfying the future consumer meat demand while staving off global hunger and civil unrest in the most economically vulnerable populations who depend upon grain products for their dietary sustenance.
Sustainable agricultural practice is a function of demand, resource availability and food security risks incurred. With the majority of arable land already in use, livestock and poultry industries are preparing for future demand by continuous transition of operations from the pasture to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO; i.e. factory farms). Manure waste streams from CAFOs threaten local water supplies with phosphate eutropication. Subtheraputic antibiotic administration is commonly used to promote animal growth in CAFOs, supporting the emergence of antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Food-borne illnesses and meat recalls are prevalent consequences of bacterial contamination originating from farmed animal fecal matter. The expansion of poultry and livestock operations increases the risk of animal-to-human zoonotic disease transmission, most notably resulting in many of the seasonal and pandemic influenza strains. Measures to prevent both zoonotic and veterinary disease transmission include culling entire farms of potentially infected animals. Aseptic cultivation of cultured meat would increase food security by mitigating risks associated with disease transmission, obviate manure production and antibiotic use, and eliminate the spread of fecal bacteria causal to food-borne illness.
Over 59 billion animals, excluding fish and invertebrates, are farmed and slaughtered annually for human consumption. The ethical consequences of conventional meat production are largely disregarded by consumers, presumably due to interpersonal conflicts with established cultural and culinary traditions. Regardless of their dietary practice, many consumers recognize animal suffering and slaughter as a cruel vice and would prefer their dietary protein from sources devoid of such associations. Cultured meat may provide a viable alternative.
To summarize, the potential benefits of cultured meat include reduced environmental impacts, decreased resource requirements, improved food security, enhanced food safety and ethically conscientious production standards.
The major disadvantages of cultured meat are that it is not available to consumers at present and will require further investment prior to reaching the market.
KN: What are some of the challenges of optimizing cultured meat production systems?
NG: Cultured meat production can be broken down into five key challenge areas that must be addressed. (1) A self-renewing stem cell source must be established for use as a ‘seed stock’ from which to cultivate the meat. Scientists are now evaluating the potentials of different stem cell types for seed stock use. (2) Conditions for developing stem cells into mature tissues must be determined and optimized. For muscle tissue, this process may include ‘exercise’ in the form of mechanical stretching or contraction. (3) A scaffold must be engineered to support tissue growth in 3-dimensions. The scaffold must be edible or removable and free from animal-derived components. (4) Nutrient rich animal-derived component-free culture media must be formulated economically to support the various growth and development phases. Plant, fungus and blue-green algae derived media in combination with defined, natural growth factors have been considered for this purpose. (5) Scalable cultivation systems must be engineered to support production of large cultured meat quantities in a sustainable manner. Though significant scientific progress has been made in these challenge areas, further engineering and technological integration are required before cultivation systems can be used for commercial scale production.
KN: Will cultured meat be available to low-income households?
NG: Eventually. A prospective key economic advantage of cultured meat is in reduced production resource requirements. The major factor driving the price will be technology. Initial pricing will depend upon the investment in production technology prior to consumer availability. Cultured meat will be accessible to low-income households if production costs can be reduced to levels of conventional meat products. Prior consumer acceptance of cultured meat marketed at a premium price by high-income households will, over time, enable further technological innovation and price reduction.
KN: PETA has officially endorsed cultured meat. Do you see vegetarians eating meat if it is cruelty-free?
NG: It depends. There are many different reasons why vegetarians choose not to eat meat. Those who may have enjoyed the flavor of meat but chose not to eat meat due to ethical concerns may choose to include cultured meat in their diets without conflict.
KN: Obviously cultured meat is cruelty-free, but how can we overcome the stigma that is attached to “lab grown meat”?
NG: Experiments are conducted in a lab. Food is produced in a dedicated facility. Once scalable cultivation methods have been optimized in a lab, production is transferred to a dedicated facility. As consumers understand that cultured meat will never be produced in the lab, the “lab grown meat” stigma will fade. The “lab grown” misidentification of cultured meat has likely arisen from the absence of any named facility to associate production with. ‘Natural’ foods commonly enjoyed today and produced in dedicated facilities include bread, beer and yogurt. These foods involve the culture of baker’s yeast, brewer’s yeast and bacteria, respectively. In an analogous manner to the bakery, brewery and dairy, a dedicated facility for the culture of animal cells into meat may be designated as a ‘carnery’ (from the Latin ‘carnis’ [i.e. meat] + -ery). In contrast to pastures and CAFOs, carneries can be located in or near urban areas and therefore accommodate decentralized production local to population centers. As harvest within canaries will not involve animal suffering or slaughter, there will be no qualms regarding production transparency.
KN: So no animals will be harmed in the process?
NG: After returning from the European Science Foundation Exploratory Workshop on in vitro meat in Gothenburg, Sweden this September, my sense was that the scientific community involved in the cultured meat R&D effort is trying to move away from animal-derived components in their process development goals for cultured meat production. Much progress has been made in this direction and is expected to continue until animal-derived components are eliminated. To the extent that animal-derived components will not be used for cultured meat production, animals will not be harmed.