* First "cultured meat" burger could be grown within a year
* Lab-grown products far more environmentally friendly
* Demand for meat rising fast as world population grows
By Kate Kelland, Health and Science Correspondent
LONDON, Nov 11 Scientists are cooking up new
ways of satisfying the world's ever-growing hunger for meat.
"Cultured meat" -- burgers or sausages grown in laboratory
Petri dishes rather than made from slaughtered livestock --
could be the answer that feeds the world, saves the environment
and spares the lives of millions of animals, they say.
Granted, it may take a while to catch on. And it won't be
The first lab-grown hamburger will cost around 250,000 euros
($345,000) to produce, according to Mark Post, a vascular
biologist at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands,
who hopes to unveil such a delicacy soon.
Experts say the meat's potential for saving animals' lives,
land, water, energy and the planet itself could be enormous.
"The first one will be a proof of concept, just to show it's
possible," Post told Reuters in a telephone interview from his
Maastricht lab. "I believe I can do this in the coming year."
It may sound and look like some kind of imitation, but
in-vitro or cultured meat is a real animal flesh product, just
one that has never been part of a complete, living animal --
quite different from imitation meat or meat substitutes aimed at
vegetarians and made from vegetable proteins like soy.
Using stem cells harvested from leftover animal material
from slaughterhouses, Post nurtures them with a feed concocted
of sugars, amino acids, lipids, minerals and all other nutrients
they need to grow in the right way.
So far he has produced whitish pale muscle-like strips, each
of them around 2.5 cm (1 inch) long, less than a centimetre wide
and so thin as to be almost see-through.
Pack enough of these together -- probably around 3,000 of
them in layers -- throw in a few strips of lab-grown fat, and
you have the world's first "cultured meat" burger, he says.
"This first one will be grown in an academic lab, by highly
trained academic staff," he said. "It's hand-made and it's time
and labour-intensive, that's why it's so expensive to produce."
Not to mention a little unappetising. Since Post's in-vitro
meat contains no blood, it lacks colour. At the moment, it looks
a bit like the flesh of scallops, he says.
Like all muscle, these lab-grown strips also need to be
exercised so they can grow and strengthen rather than waste
away. To do this Post exploits the muscles' natural tendency to
contract and stretches them between Velcro tabs in the Petri
dish to provide resistance and help them build up strength.
Supporters of the idea of man-made meat, such as Stellan
Welin, a bioethicist at Linkoping University in Sweden, say this
is no less appealing than mass-producing livestock in factory
farms where growth hormones and antibiotics are commonly used to
boost yields and profits.
And conventional meat production is also notoriously
inefficient. For every 15 grams of edible meat, you need to feed
the animals on around 100 grams of vegetable protein, an
increasingly unsustainable equation.
All this means finding new ways of producing meat is
essential if we are to feed the enormous and ever-growing demand
for it across the world, Welin told Reuters in an interview.
"Of course you could do it by being vegetarian or eating
less meat," he said. "But the trends don't seem to be going that
way. With cultured meat we can be more conservative -- people
can still eat meat, but without causing so much damage."
According to the World Health Organisation, annual meat
production is projected to increase from 218 million tonnes in
1997-1999 to 376 million tonnes by 2030, and demand from a
growing world population is seen rising further beyond that.
"Current livestock meat production is just not sustainable,"
says Post. "Not from an ecological point of view, and neither
from a volume point of view. Right now we are using more than 50
percent of all our agricultural land for livestock.
"It's simple maths. We have to come up with alternatives."
According to a 2006 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture
Organisation, industrialised agriculture contributes on a
"massive scale" to climate change, air pollution, land
degradation, energy use, deforestation and biodiversity decline.
The report, entitled Livestock's Long Shadow, said the meat
industry contributes about 18 percent of global greenhouse-gas
emissions, and this proportion is expected to grow as consumers
in fast-developing countries like China and India eat more meat.
Hanna Tuomisto, who conducted a study into the relative
environmental impacts of various types of meat, including lamb,
pork, beef and cultured meat, said the lab-grown stuff has by
far the least impact on the environment.
Her analysis, published in the Environmental Science and
Technology journal earlier this year, found that growing our
favourite meats in-vitro would use 35 to 60 percent less energy,
emit 80 to 95 percent less greenhouse gas and use around 98
percent less land than conventionally produced animal meat.
"We are not saying that we could, or would necessarily want
to, replace conventional meat with its cultured counterpart
right now," Tuomisto, who led the research at Oxford
University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, said in a
But she said cultured meat "could be part of the solution to
feeding the world's growing population and at the same time
cutting emissions and saving both energy and water."
While experts in the field agree that within several years,
it may be possible to produce in-vitro meat in a processed form
-- like sausages or chicken nuggets -- producing more
animal-like products such as pork chops or steaks could be a lot
more complex and may take many more years to develop.
Post, who is financed by an anonymous private funder keen to
see the Dutch scientist succeed, hopes to hand the world its
first man-made hamburger by August or September next year, but
for the moment he admits what he has grown is a long way from a
He hasn't yet sampled his own creation, but reviews from
others are not great. A Russian TV reporter who came to his lab
tried one of the strips and was unimpressed.
"It's not very tasty yet," Post said. "That's not a trivial
thing and it needs to be worked on."
But with the right amounts and right types of fat, perhaps a
little lab-grown blood to give it colour and iron, Post is
confident he can make his Petri dish meat look and taste as good
as the real thing.
He also hopes the ability to tweak and change things will
mean scientists will ultimately be able to make meat healthier
-- with less saturated and more polyunsaturated fat, for
example, or more nutrients.
"The idea is that since we are now producing it in the lab,
we can play with all these variables and we can eventually
hopefully turn it in a way that produces healthier meat," he
said. "Whereas in a cow or a pig, you have very limited
variables to play with."
($1 = 0.727 Euros)
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)