Selling Christian Nationalism »« Greatest. Petition. Ever.

Stem Cell Steak?

DarkSyd reports on new technology that may allow us to grow a steak in the lab rather than having to raise an animal. But here’s my question: Would it have fat? Fat is a different kind of tissue than muscle, I assume. And steak without fat is shoe leather. Could we grow a ribeye? Or would it just be a piece of generic cow muscle? Inquiring minds — and hungry stomachs — wanna know.

Comments

  1. harold says

    This has had a lot of publicity – there was a piece in the New Yorker about it a while ago – but I think the food aspect is greatly over-hyped.

    It’s supposed to provide two advantages – ethical meat for vegans and, ostensibly, energy efficiency.

    Unfortunately, what every article I have seen so far fails to address is the methodology of cell culture. Culturing cells is energy intensive and I can’t imagine that it can be accomplished with anywhere near the cost and energy efficiency of humanely raising livestock.

    As for the vegan argument, it is technically possible to do some types of cell culture without using animal products, but not always easy or cost effective to do so. Serum that is produced as a byproduct of cattle slaughter often remains a key ingredient. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cell_culture#Maintaining_cells_in_culture.

    Raising differentiated muscle cells in culture – valuable. Using them as meat – I’m not convinced.

    If someone disagrees with me, they can do so intelligently by addressing the points I made. General objections to skeptical analysis, such as inaccurately telling me that I am “negative” or “similar to the people who persecuted Gallileo”, or inaccurately accusing me of being involved with “big agriculture”, would not constitute a rational rebuttal.

  2. says

    Fundamentalist KKKristians and PETA joining forces? It’s too horriblre to contemplate.

    Just call me when they clone somebody to pay my fucking bills.

  3. Michael Heath says

    Harold writes:

    Culturing cells is energy intensive and I can’t imagine that it can be accomplished with anywhere near the cost and energy efficiency of humanely raising livestock.

    Do you have a compelling cite which buttresses your skepticism?

  4. harold says

    Michael Heath –

    I guess you didn’t click on the link I provided.

    Yes, it’s a Wikipedia link. It’s a GOOD Wikipedia article, which means that it provides 1) an accurate summary of the field and 2) abundant citations of original sources for those who wish to learn more. Here’s a link to the entire article. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cell_culture

    Also, my argument is merely that culturing animal cells in a way that produces muscle differentiation still probably requires the same extremely well known procedures the culturing animal cells does in other contexts. The onus is actually on those who would show otherwise. No-one doubts that cultured cells are potentially edible and can be made to show muscle differentiation. Whether there is any valid reason, beyond intellectual achievement, to do so, is the question.

  5. Aquaria says

    Yes, it’s a Wikipedia link. It’s a GOOD Wikipedia article, which means that it provides 1) an accurate summary of the field and 2) abundant citations of original sources for those who wish to learn more. Here’s a link to the entire article. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cell_culture

    1 cite for the maintaining cell section you listed as your source isn’t “abundant”. Worse, the cite actually leads to a corporate site’s description of a product, not to peer-reviewed literature. The article itself may be overall acceptable, but that section and that link are not.

  6. johnsteemson says

    Vat-meat! Long been a staple of sci-fi! Heard one of the scientists talking about it on the radio maybe a couple of weeks ago. He said that even though they can grow muscle tissue, there is no fat at all. Including different types of cells (ie fat cells) is another matter entirely. They can produce a lump of cells, one that, according to a reporter, doesn’t taste very nice.

  7. harold says

    Aquaria –

    I believe I have caused confusion by the way I used links.

    I will repeat and clarify my points, and then see if I can figure out what you are talking about.

    My points are simple.

    First, based in my knowledge of cell culture techniques, they are currently quite labor intensive and require special conditions. Therefore I am highly skeptical that current cell culture techniques would be good for raising meat for human consumption, from a perspective of cost or net resource consumption. This is not a claim that there will never be a time when such a technique could be effective; merely, I am skeptical that this is currently the case.

    My second point was merely that cell culture uses animal derived products extensively, although this is sometimes not necessary. I pointed out that cell culture meat might or might not even be vegan.

    A rebuttal of my first point would best take the form of an analysis showing that, despite the seeming complexity of current cell culture, meat for human consumption can be produced at a reasonable dollar or resource cost per unit of meat.

    The second point could be rebutted merely by showing a method for raising cell culture meat without any input of animal-derived products. Technically, cost would not be an issue here.

    Moving on to the content of your comment.

    1 cite for the maintaining cell section you listed as your source isn’t “abundant”. Worse, the cite actually leads to a corporate site’s description of a product, not to peer-reviewed literature.

    I may have caused confusion by providing two links. At first I linked to a section WITHIN a Wikipedia article about cell culture. I did that because I was emphasizing the point that cell culture itself often uses animal products as nutrition for cells. I agree that that particular sub-section is not, in isolation, very informative.

    However, to improve that, I linked to the broader article. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cell_culture. It is a good article, with 15 citations of peer-reviewed literature and an solid collection of links to external sources, mainly if not exclusively unbiased.

    I don’t know what corporate link you are referring to. I am sure there must be one there, since you saw one. However, the point of view I am expressing here is not that of any particular corporation.

    (You might have noted that the article I linked merely educates the reader about cell culture in general. It does not; in fact, provide direct reference to the use of cultured cells for meat. In fact, I can’t find any primary literature citations for that. This may not be surprising, as those who seek to launch a commercial venture sometimes do not publish their research. If there is published original research that shows that it is economically efficient to use cultured cells for meat, I welcome a reference. As for the popular culture references, I am already very familiar with them. Mark Post does have a lot of published work on the subject of muscle differentiation of cultured cells http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=mark%20post, but none of this is directly relevant to production of meat for human consumption on a large scale, at reasonable cost.)

    The article itself may be overall acceptable, but that section and that link are not.

    I agree that I should have linked to the entire article in the first place.

    For full disclosure, my emotional bias is that I would “want” the cell culture meat claims to be true. Just as I would “want” climate change denial to be true – who wants global warming? Yet I do not agree with climate change denial, even though it would be nice if the denialists were right. Likewise, here, just because a new, efficient source of tasty food would be wonderful for a rapidly growing human population, I still have to view the claim that this is it with skepticism.

    Unfortunately, my personal impression is that the cell culture meat claims are exaggerated, at least with respect to today’s technology.

  8. harold says

    Oops, one more possible confusing thing –

    Clearly there are several people named Mark Post publishing on different topics. I assume that only the PubMed references that lead to research by Dutch researchers on cultured cells are related to the Mark Post in question here.

  9. handcrank says

    I am a graduate student working in the field of stem cell research. My opinion is that Harold is fairly spot on, any mammalian cell culture is technically difficult. Stem cells require specialized culture conditions such as the addition of specific growth factors, these can be very expensive. Animal serum free culture media is starting to become available for stem cells, but so far the ones that we have tested don’t work nearly as well as bovine serum containing media.
    However the biggest problem with the idea is that it’s relatively easy to force all the cells in a flask to differentiate but to make all the cell types needed to build anything that resembles a steak is much more difficult because you have to generate several different lineages simultaneously. At the moment I would say we have the ability to make the raw materials but not much idea of how to put them all together. As for fat, sure why not if you can do the rest it can’t be that much more difficult.

  10. crayzz says

    Harold, as far as I can tell, all that the link you gave us shows is that growing cell cultures is technically difficult. It doesn’t say anything about energy efficiency. Now, as far as I know, biological processes aren’t particularly efficient. Photosynthesis has an efficiency of about 6%, while ones muscle input is about 4 times larger then the output. Raising cows would require years of energy input, only to get a few hundred pounds of meat (around 500 pounds, IIRC). Which is plenty, but for each of those pounds of meat you had to put in many more pounds of cow feed. Plus all the feed for the organs, bones and fat (which, all totaled, weigh more than the meat does). Plus fertilizers and pesticides to grow the cow feed. Plus transportation of cow feed and fertilizer. Plus many fertilizers are petroleum products, or at least require some to create, which places some burden on our oil supply. Maybe growing cells does require a large amount of energy, but I find it hard to believe it requires more energy than a process that, at least currently, requires such a massive and inefficient infrastructure.

  11. harold says

    crayzz –

    Maybe growing cells does require a large amount of energy, but I find it hard to believe it requires more energy than a process that, at least currently, requires such a massive and inefficient infrastructure.

    However, growing organisms is another way of growing cells.

    It’s my educated conjecture, based on what is probably a better knowledge of cell culture than others posting here except handcrank, and a decent knowledge of agriculture, that it is far easier and more efficient than growing cells in culture.

    Handcrank makes another point, which I had neglected to bring up. What we eat as “meat” is typically a sample of an entire organ – usually a big hunk of skeletal muscle in the US, Canada, or Australia, often some other organ in other areas. That big hunk of muscle has the taste, appearance, and texture it does because it is a biologically complex organ, with connective tissue, blood vessels, some number of fat cells, etc. Getting something resembling intact organs to come together in culture is another big field of research, for medical, not food, purposes. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=organ%20culture%20techniques. This field has shown promise but also struggled for years. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t cheap.

    You’ve presented a good introduction to the first half of what would be a good argument, if the rest of the first half, and the second half, were also there.

    You subjectively find that agriculture “looks inefficient” to you. Okay. That’s a good lead-in to a discussion of exactly how much it costs to get a kilogram of some kind of meat food to the consumer. It would be fair if you wrote off the cheapest meats as being produced by methods that are long term unsustainable, and analyzed the costs of free range chicken or some such thing. That would the first half of the argument. Then you would present an in-depth analysis of the cost of providing a kilogram of comparable meat produced by cell culture to the consumer. If the costs were somewhat similar, arguably within an order of magnitude of each other, you would have made a strong case against my skepticism.

    As I noted, all of us would subjectively “want” a cheap, humane new source of tasty food for the human race. I “want” cold fusion and faster-than-the-speed-of-light starships, too, for that matter. Maybe we’ll have it all someday.

    Typically, people react to things they don’t want with unreasonable skepticism, and to things they do want with unreasonable willingness to believe them.

    As one who prefers empiricism and rational, skeptical analysis, I try (with imperfect results, of course) to apply equal skepticism to things I would “want” to be true and to be fair when evaluating things I don’t “want” to be true.

    I’m open-minded and if I see a serious, complete, informed, quantitative argument that supports the economic viability of raising human-acceptable meat with current cell culture technology, at a reasonable economic cost, I’ll gladly acknowledge it.

  12. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    @10 – for each of those pounds of meat you had to put in many more pounds of cow feed. Plus all the feed for the organs, bones and fat (which, all totaled, weigh more than the meat does). Plus fertilizers and pesticides to grow the cow feed. Plus transportation of cow feed and fertilizer.

    OR … you turn the cows loose on grassland with a stream running through it or some other source of water and WALLAH! they convert several acres of grass we can’t eat into high quality protein, plus shoe leather, tallow etc. And they will do it in areas that aren’t suitable for cultivation.

    http://www.vacationideas.me/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/price-canyon-ranch-arizona-cattle.jpg

    You just have to disperse the slaughtering and processing facilities.

    Until you have had range-fed beef, you haven’t had good beef.

  13. says

    Strongly agree with harold @1 and subsequent posts.

    For what it’s worth, I do cell culture for a living, and I can tell you that it’s an extremely expensive and wasteful method of growing cells when compared to how nature does it. I cannot imagine that it will ever be cost-effective compared to growing an animal, except perhaps for certain niche applications.

    I assume that you could gain some efficiencies by scaling up the process, but ultimately you have the same problems: the need to maintain constant sterility, the need for growth factors and differentiation, frequent exchange of media, a treated substrate to grow it on, etc. Basically, to make cell culture more efficient you have to make it more and more like an already living animal, complete with immune system, automatic excretion of waste products, a built-in developmental program, and so on. It makes vastly more sense to start with the living animal and tinker with it rather than try to build a new one from the ground up.

  14. crayzz says

    @Harold

    You’re right when you say I’m being subjective. My understanding was that farming animals is an inefficient process, but that understanding was an impression I had gotten from my weak understanding of agriculture. And honestly, I would have done a cost analysis of the costs of traditional farming, free range farming and cell culture growth but I don’t have the resources on hand for that.

    @Tsu Dho Nimh

    How would Free range beef taste different from regular beef? I’d love to take you’re word for it but I’ve seen too many people talk about how organic produce tastes so much better (it doesn’t, at least as far as I can tell) and how all natural medicines are way better for you and are just as effective.

    @Area

    Are there any ways of modifying existing animals without selective breeding or genetic modification? Breeding is a somewhat slow (though evidently effective) process and we can only influence the result, not directly control it. As for genetic modification, people kinda hate that idea. I can’t see GMO meat going on the market anytime soon. I think Canada is the only country that allows GMO meat to be sold, and even that is being attacked.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply