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Oscillator

Oscillator

Notes, thoughts, and news on synthetic biology.

Growing the Future of Meat

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Yesterday somebody ate a $375,000 hamburger and we were promised a future of cruelty-free meat grown in a petri dish rather than in an animal. Mark Post and his team of tissue engineers funded by Google's Sergey Brin made the 5 ounce hamburger patty by assembling 20,000 tiny bits of beef muscle grown in the lab. This hamburger is a PR spectacle and a proof of principle, meant to inspire an industry that could one day scale to the level of today’s industrial meat production and beyond. It is one small bite at a press conference, sold as one giant leap towards reducing the damaging effects of meat.

These are big claims worthy of close scrutiny. There’s no question that our current system of industrial animal agriculture is damaging to the environment, harmful to animals, dangerous for workers, and creating a potential crisis for public health. In vitro meat is being presented as the more efficient and ethical--though currently prohibitively expensive--option for meat eaters.

I’ve written before about the challenges of scaling this kind of technology and the resources required to grow meat in vitro--the nutrients, fetal bovine serum, antibiotics, and exercise needed to keep animal cells growing happily. While considering the magnitude of such technological problems, I also think it’s worth looking more closely at the reductionist industrial ethos this kind of engineering brings to the production of food.

Mark Post described the process of making meat in a petri dish in a short talk titled “Meet the New Meat" at the Next Nature Power Show in late 2011. In the talk he outlines the environmental costs of industrial scale meat production in terms of land use (70% of arable land is used to grow crops for animal feed) and greenhouse gas emission (39% of total methane emissions come from cows) and discusses the inefficiencies that create these environmental costs. Animals like pigs and cows, he says, have not been designed to efficiently convert vegetable protein into animal protein.

He continues to argue that by taking a few stem cells from an animal and growing them in vitro in the lab, “we can grow them under very controlled conditions, we can control all the variables and grow meat from that." This meat needs to be fed, of course, but “since we can control all those variables we probably can make it much more efficient than the animal can." But is controlling all the variables really possible when it comes to meat? Is reducing an animal so completely to its cellular parts really an efficient solution or is it simply reproducing the same kinds of industrial problems at a new scale?

In The Real World of Technology, Ursula Franklin explores the impacts that this kind of engineering can have, especially as it grows to bigger and bigger scales. It is worth quoting her here at length on the differences in how biological organisms or holistic technologies scale--what Franklin calls the "growth model"--versus how a more prescriptive and reductionist technology scales in a "production model":

Size is a natural result of growth, but growth itself cannot be commandeered; it can only be nurtured and encouraged by providing a suitable environment. Growth occurs; it is not made. Within a growth model, all that human intervention can do is to discover the best conditions for growth and then try to meet them. In any given environment, the growing organism develops at its own rate.

A production model is different in kind. Here things are not grown but made, and made under conditions that are, at least in principle, entirely controllable. If in practice such control is not complete or completely successful, then there is an assumption, implicit in the model itself, that improvements in knowledge, design, and organization can occur so that all essential parameters will become controllable...

[The production model] discounts and disregards all effects arising from the impact of the production activity on its surroundings. Such externalities are considered irrelevant to the activity itself and are therefore the business of someone else. Think of a work situation, a production line. There are important factors — such as pollution or the physical and mental health of the workers — which in the production model are considered other people’s problems. They are externalities. We know today that this discounting of context and the failure to consider external and interactive effects are, in fact, a ticket to trouble.

We know that the deterioration of the world’s environment arose precisely from such inadequate modelling. Processes that are cheap in the marketplace are often wasteful and harmful in the larger context, and production models make it quite easy to consider contextual factors as irrelevant.

We've seen how damaging the externalities of meat production are, the problems that emerge when we force the production model onto the growth of animals. The in vitro approach and its attempts to control all the variables of cell growth is a production model even farther removed from the growth of organisms. As a biologist and biological engineer, I hope that yesterday's exciting hamburger tasting can inspire us to consider new ways of thinking about how we grow our food, new technologies that can take advantage of the efficiency and power of biological growth rather than industrial control.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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