According to a series of articles in your local science periodicals, a billionaire by the name of Peter Thiel has donated a small fortune to a series of biotechnology startups, one of which is researching ways to “print” 3D meat. The name of the company is Modern Meadow, a Missouri-based startup that believes 3D printing could be the answer to meeting (I swear, no pun!) the world’s high demand for meat.
The process involves the careful layering of mixed cells in a specific structure, thus rendering an in-vitro meat product. Thanks to Thiel’s donation of 350,000 dollars, they hope to create a prototype very soon – which will consist of a sliver of meat that measures two centimeters by one centimeter and is less than half a millimeter thick. Not the biggest slice of meat you ever saw, but as they say, start small!
If feasible, this concept will be a boon for food production and green initiatives. For decades now, vegetarians and environmentalists have been toying with the idea of artificially produced meat for a number of reasons. For the former, the benefits include a source of protein that doesn’t involve animal cruelty. For the latter, it means providing for Earth’s voracious appetite for meat – roughly 240 billion kilograms a year – without the need to clear rainforests for pasture land or the dangers of producing new and deadly diseases. Within the last thirty years, the world has seen outbreaks of Mad Cow Disease, Hoof in Mouth Disease, and Avian Bird Flu, all due to globalization and increased demands for meat.
Modern Meadow explained these advantages in a recent submission to the United States Department of Agriculture:
“The technology has several advantages in comparison to earlier attempts to engineer meat in vitro. The bio-ink particles can be reproducibly prepared with mixtures of cells of different type. Printing ensures consistent shape, while post-printing structure formation and maturation in the bioreactor facilitates conditioning.”
As for the rest of us, there’s just the question of what it would mean to actually eat this stuff. Are we comfortable with meat created by a machine? The company admits that this is one of the biggest challenges facing them and the development of this process. In a separate statement they claimed:
“The consumer acceptance of such products may not be without challenges. We expect it will first appeal to culinary early-adopter consumers and the segment of the vegetarian community that rejects meat for ethical reasons. With reduction in price, it can reach the masses with religious restrictions on meat consumption (people restricted to Hindu, Kosher, Halal diets) and finally populations with limited access to safe meat production.”
I like the sound of that, especially the part where low cost means better access. And in truth, the process could be made incredibly affordable once all the components are perfected, tested and become regular items manufactured by components industries. Unlike a lot of the technologies that I’ve been hearing about of late, this is not one that will appeal only to the super-rich and powerful. And there’s an upside to the planet and it’s developing nations, ones which are forced to destroy their environments for the sake of providing cheap sources of meat and poultry.
Still, not sure how I’d feel about this stuff if and when it shows up on the shelf at the local grocery store. Then again, if it meets all the right safety and health standards and the price is right, I’ll give it a shot!