When you think of where your meat comes from, you probably think of a farm. But here on campus, a group of scientists are creating meat.
Kaplan Lab’s Cellular Agriculture Research Team Focuses on “The Basic Science Underlying the Cultivation [and] meat in vitro”, that is, the generation of muscle and fat tissue outside the body of an animal. This is called cellular agriculture. According to the website of a course affiliated with the lab, some of their focus points include “engineering muscle cells for improved nutrition and cost reduction”, the use of insect cells for the generation of tissue from large-scale meat and ‘the application [and] adaptation of conventional meat science techniques to evaluate meat generated in vitro.
“What we do, basically…is we isolate stem cells from tissue, say, from a cow,” John Yuen, a Ph.D. student who works in the Kaplan Lab, said. “And then we try to multiply those stem cells, proliferate them to a huge amount, and then turn those little cells into real muscle fibers.”
Cells in the body have two stages: the first is the proliferation stage where cells multiply, and the second is the differentiation stage, where cells stop dividing and form different cells, leading to tissues and organs. function specific. The cells then mass-produce the proteins needed for the muscle’s contractive function, differentiating into muscle fibers, a process the researchers aim to house in their petri dishes. Tissue of animal origin can come either from a biopsy or from a sample from an abattoir.
The Kaplan lab primarily uses cattle samples from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts because cows have the greatest negative environmental impact of cattle raised for human consumption. In general, livestock alone accounts for around 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the food industry as a whole accounts for a third of our carbon emissions. While cows have a serious environmental impact, Yuen is interested in fish for both environmental and human health reasons. In environmental terms, overfishing decreases biodiversity, and on the human side, mercury via biomagnification is a growing health concern due to toxicities.
When it comes to cellular farming, however, it’s debatable whether the energy used to grow meat in a cellular way equals that of traditional farming practices. There are many life cycle analyzes on cultured meat, all of which are speculative at this time.
“It usually boils down to [that] cultured meat [has] much less land use and eutrophication because pollutants don’t just run off into waterways,” Yuen said.
Proponents of cellular agriculture believe it could reduce soil, water and chemical inputs and minimize greenhouse gas emissions. In contrast, the high-energy points can come from using a bioreactor, a machine used to make cell-cultured meat on a larger scale. Because the scale of their production is much smaller than any potentially commercially available solution, the Kaplan Lab uses petri dishes.
“If we do a little experiment to study a little aspect of how the cell works…all we need is just one test because we just need a little bit,” Yuen said.
Economically, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the December 2021 average ground chuck price in US cities is $4.79 per pound. While Kaplan Lab members don’t measure and produce the meat themselves, some companies are turning to industrial meat production scales. In fact, even some of the biggest conventional meat producers like Tyson and Cargill are getting involved in the cellular farming space.
However, there is controversy in the field as to whether meat grown from cells can become cheap or if it can ever be made profitably. Some believe meat grown from cells can be produced at the same cost as conventional meat once it has been scaled up. The first slaughter-free burger made with lab-grown meat was unveiled in 2013 by Mosa Meat’s CSO, Professor Mark Post, which cost $280,000. Scaling is a challenge due to the growth pattern of animal cells attached to surfaces.
Sean Cash is an associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy who works closely with the Kaplan Lab to assess the interplay of economics and cellular agriculture. He analyzed the barriers to consumer acceptance, how cellular farming will be regulated, and what to call it.
“It’s really a story of [figuring] how to do things, but the real challenge is to make it bigger,” Cash said. “If you think about what the first precursors of the cellular [agriculture] job [were], it was about using animal cells for medical purposes… but those would never need the kinds of scales you talk about for food production.
Another barrier is of a more linguistic nature. There is a current debate over whether meat grown from cells should be called “meat” to begin with.
“If you’re a conventional beef producer, you want cell products that can’t [to be called] ‘beef.’ You want them to use different things to put in a high-tech food box,” Cash said. “If you’re a member of this fledgling industry, you want to be able to freely use the phrases that you think will help you the most connect with your potential future consumers.”
In 2018, the US Cattlemen’s Association sent a petition to the USDA which they summarized as follows: “The terms ‘beef’ and ‘meat’ should be retained exclusively for products derived from the flesh of a [bovine] animal, harvested in the traditional way. Based on feedback received, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service found that while most opposed the petition, nearly all agreed that cultured meat should be labeled to identify its method of production.
According to a Penn State study, the development of cellular agriculture could increase socioeconomic inequalities by concentrating power in the food system and displacing already struggling farmers and fishers. The same study also found that it could lead to a big improvement in sustainability for the food industry.
“Creative destruction … is always part of new technologies, and the displacement of workers and existing industrial sectors is a separate issue from market concentration, because the displacement of farmers and fishermen is already happening,” Cash said.
Cash believes that if cellular agriculture takes off, new people will be hired into this space, as has happened in the past with new innovations.
Regarding market concentration, Cash recognizes that an increased reliance on proprietary technology and information could further concentrate power on the side of economic scale and intellectual property. Either way, Cash is a proponent of keeping research in the public space. Recently, the Kaplan Lab received $10 million in funding from a USDA grant to optimize its cellular agriculture efforts. In particular, the grant will enable Tufts to establish the new National Institute of Cellular Agriculture, the first government-funded center for protein research.
“One of the best ways … to ensure that new technologies can be forces for diversification and democratization of access to production, and perhaps help us to deconcentrate some of these things … is to bring to life key technologies in the public sphere,” Cash said. . “If these advances happen … only in the hands of private companies, or if they happen in government laboratories in other countries where there could be closer coordination with industrial sectors, it will only lead to a market concentration.
To embrace inclusiveness, according to Cash, technologies must be in the public sphere, existing in a system of peer-reviewed research and publicly available patents. In keeping with these values, New Harvest is a non-profit organization dedicated to maximizing the positive impact of cellular agriculture.
“We are fostering technical leadership, building science infrastructure and filling knowledge gaps in cellular agriculture,” Meera Zassenhaus, communications and media manager at New Harvest, wrote in an email. “Long term, we are working to ensure this burgeoning industry delivers on its promise to reduce our dependence on animal agriculture and the heavy toll meat production has on the environment, animal welfare and public health.
She hopes cell-grown meat will eventually replace factory farms, with the possibility of buying crispy cell-grown wraps at a local Taco Bell in the future. Cash also shared the possibility of seeing a mix of cell-grown meat and conventional meat in one product.
Overall, as Zassenhaus wrote, one thing is clear: “We need a pool of talent, data and expertise to come [from] the universities. This is where the most experimental and advanced research takes place.