Scientist suggested in the Cell Press journal Trends in Biotechnology that some day in the future every town might have its own eco-friendly meat factory, using stem cells to grow cultured beef and pork. Coming from adult animals, these specialized cells with the ability to repair organs could one day be a greener source for meat.
The authors of the article say that the environmental pollution, energy consumption, and animal suffering associated with factory farming all make the world-wide demand for meat unsustainable. Cor van der Weele, of the Netherlands Wageningen University and co-author of the article, said the scientists believe that this discussion is part of a future in which cultured meat is part of a “protein transition.”
It is already possible to use stem cells to make meat. Last year Mark Post, a Maastricht University professor of tissue engineering in the Netherlands, developed the first lab-grown hamburger, which was presented in March 2014 at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin. The test-tube hamburger was estimated to cost approximately $325,000. van der Weele first heard about cultured meat in 2004, when a French museum served frog steaks, with the live donor frog present at the tasting.
Johannes Tramper, the other article coauthor, and van der Weele used their Science & Society paper to discuss a future meat manufacturing process that uses stem cells taken from a cell bank that would ultimately end in a cake of minced meat. However, making a cultured meat that is cheaper than normal animal meat is a challenge, due to maintaining a continuous source of the cells. They said that the price of regular meat would have to rise substantially before stem cell-grown meat is a viable alternative.
These vital cells are found in virtually all multi-cellular organisms and are characterized by the ability to renew themselves.When the words “stem cells” are uttered people tend to instantly think of the embryonic cell source, the subject of a great and ongoing controversy. Embryonic stem cells, obviously, come from embryos, and the sources that make those cells available are opposed by many who consider it to be showing a lack of respect for human life.
Embryonic stem cells are sought because they can differentiate into any type of specialized tissues. However, the cells that are used in the process of growing meat would be adult stem cells, which replenish specialized cells and also act as one of the body’s repair systems, maintaining the normal function of skin, blood, intestinal tissues, and other regenerative organs. Adult stem cells are found in adult tissues, and can be harvested without harm to the donor. In addition to eco-friendly meat, scientists dream of a future in which these cells could be used to regrow faulty organs.
Tramper and van der Weele wrote that there is a great “moral promise” for cultured meat. Close contact with the donor-cell animals might alleviate feelings of alienation from the food source and worries about unnaturalness. In the search for an eco-friendly meat source, stem cells may be the path of the future.
By Beth A. Balen