Here's Why You're Not Eating Chicken Breast Grown in a Lab (Yet)

As you might expect, there are unanswered questions about technical feasibility, and the environmental impact it could cause.

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Mar 13 2015, 1:00pm

Image: ​Mike/Flickr

​In 2013, Dutch scientist Mark Post became the first ​person in the world to serve a beef burger grown in a lab. Now, a group of Israeli scientists, doctors and environmentalists are trying to grow chicken—and hope that, one day, their product can be mass produced.

While Post may have been first, his burger was made from tiny slivers of muscle fibers packed together, a far cry from the farm-raised meat that most of us currently eat. But an Israeli company called ​Future Meat wants to manufacture a whole lab-grown breast. Although their work is only in the research phase, if successful, it could be the first ever instance of a whole animal organ grown for consumption.

Though the prospect of creating whole cuts of meat in a lab may seem far fetched, and perhaps even a little gross, it might be our best alternative yet to factory farming and a more sustainable source of food. But there are just as many unanswered questions about the technical feasibility, and the environmental impact that trading one form of mass production for another might cause.

Shir Friedman, co-founder Future Meat, said that, although they admire the work of Post, the approach they plan to take is significantly different. "With the burger, researchers took tonnes and tonnes of small muscle fibres that they had grown and then shred them into a burger," Friedman told me. "That's a non-effective or sustainable way of production. We will use the cells of a chicken and grow them into an entire piece of chicken breast from those few cells. We would be growing an entire organ instead of just muscle fiber."​

"Biomedical engineers aren't focused on growing meat, they're focused on growing organs, and there have been people working on that for 25 years"

The goal is to one day help end world hunger by releasing their technology to the world, effectively open sourcing the entire project, and they hope that this will encourage governments to pitch in aid too. Friedman said her company's meat will be produced in sterile, controlled environments using cells taken from animal bodies—and the final product, they claim, will be indistinguishable from the real thing.

"We are not looking to change anyone's lifestyle," Friedman told me, referring to groups such as PETA that maintain the only way to achieve a sustainable future for food is through veganism. "We are looking for a realistic approach that will also save the planet: developing cultured meat. This solution does not require anyone to make any changes in their diet."

"The only reason why this hasn't been done before is not because it is hard or impossible to do, but because the ecological problem with factory farming was never that urgent," Friedman said.

However, Debbie Chachra, associate professor of Materials Science at Olin College of Engineering, says this isn't exactly the case. "The meat problem is a focused part of a larger endeavour, the field of tissue engineering. Researchers are trying to grow new tissues and organs to replace damaged ones, so that patients won't need to rely on organ donation. Scientists, engineers, and doctors have been working on that for 25 years."

Dutch scientist Mark Post and his lab-grown beef burger. ​David Parry/PA Wire

Chachra says it's tough to grow a muscle like a chicken breast in a lab, but in a way it's easier than growing an organ like a human liver. "A chicken breast consists of muscle cells, and typically a collagen framework that helps support those cells, and the structure of the tissue depends on the mechanical environment that the tissue has been in," Chachra explained. Just like how muscles atrophy with disuse, if you tried to grow a chicken breast without any stimulation at all, that structure probably wouldn't develop properly. So it wouldn't taste right."

Replicating the structure of a muscle without subjecting that muscle to the rigours it would experience in the real world is nearly impossible. But, as opposed to creating human organs, "mass production would be quicker because the requirements are less stringent," she says. "It will be almost certainly be easier to make something that tastes like meat than something that needs to function properly in the body."

But Biologist Christina Agapakis, a Harvard PhD and partner at Icosahedron​ Labs, doesn't think that we should treat cultured meat as the be all and end all solution to our food problems just yet. While the practice would obviously be more humane, she reasoned, mass producing lab meat is so unprecedented means that the environmental impact is still unknown. In other words, we could be trading one problem for another.

"People forget that you still need to feed cultured cells something, and that something is sugar. Where will all the sugar [...] come from?"

"A lot of people don't talk about how many antibiotics are required to grow cultured cells," Agapakis said." It's very easy to contaminate cultured cells and tissues. It's sad that this isn't part of the discussion."

She cited the unexpected repercussions from biofuels as an example of what could go wrong. "They were promised as the way out, the way that we could make enough energy in an environmentally friendly way. And it hasn't panned out because it turns out that, to produce biofuels at the scale that you need, it actually takes more energy and creates more carbon output than you would have than just burning oil," Agapakis explained. "People forget that you still need to feed cultured cells something, and that something is sugar. Where will all the sugar to mass produce cultured meat come from?"

Still, Post, the Dutch scientist who made the first lab-grown burger in 2013, thinks the shift is inevitable. "Cultured meat will replace livestock meat production at some point, probably 30 years from now or so," he told me.

But Isha Datar, director of New H​arvest, a charity that's advancing technologies to sustainably and affordably feed a growing global population, believes that it doesn't have to be an either or proposition.

"I'd like to see a future where meat has many definitions, including plant-based meats, insects, and cultured meats," Datar said. "A wide portfolio of what meat can be makes for a more resilient system. Our current method of producing meat is pretty ineffective resource-wise, pretty dangerous health and safety-wise, and extremely inhumane."

The future of food production may indeed stem from Future Meats' ideas, but they'll have to start culturing before we can know for sure. Though they are adamant that cultured meat will succeed, there are still many hurdles that will need to be overcome. 

This story is part of The Building Blocks of Everything, a series of science and technology stories on the theme of materials. Check out more here: http://motherboard.tv/building-blocks-of-everything