Science - February 7, 2011

Wageningen tackles meaty issue

The universities in Wageningen and Utrecht will work together to culture meat. The new meat is made from muscle tissues, but no longer requires the presence of an animal.

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Cow, pig or chicken, step aside. Make way for stem cells. Cultured meat is made by growing muscle tissues from stem cells. In principle, all that's required is just one stem cell from an animal, which does not need to be slaughtered. The idea of cultured meat has been around for a long time. The Dutchman Willem van Eelen thought of the process already in the early fifties of the previous century. But the technique was not sufficiently advanced at that time to get things going. The stem cell technique changed all that. In 1999, Van Eelen applied for a patent for his discovery. Together with the Utrecht University and others, work was then carried out to culture meat.
Ethics
The universities in Utrecht and Wageningen will now jointly take over. Culturing research will be done in Utrecht under the leadership of meat professor Henk Haagsman. Wageningen will examine the ethical and societal aspects surrounding cultured meat. This cooperation between technique and ethics is rather revolutionary, explains project coordinator and applied philosopher Cor van de Weele. 'Normally, the technique comes first;  ethicists and philosophers then step in to be the critic and watchdog of the developments. In our case, the roles are reversed. The society demands cultured meat because of animal welfare and other issues. Ethics is therefore the prime mover for the technique.'
 
Consumer
Van der Weele will study the ethical and moral aspects of cultured meat as a philosopher. Sociologist Gerben Bekker will probe into the attitudes of people towards cultured meat and how these can be influenced. The cooperation between Wageningen and Utrecht would have to produce something which caters to the wishes of the consumer. Van der Weele says that cultured meat should be spared the difficult path faced by the acceptance of genetically modified food.'
The research will be financed by the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation where the project was formally kicked off last week. Cultured meat could be the solution to the continuing growth in demand for meat in the world. It is one of the possible alternative protein sources, which include insects, algae and plants. Wageningen plays a prominent role in this research work.
Minced meat
The research project will last for four years. What chance there is that a piece of cultured meat will be found in the shop in this period is difficult to say. 'We have only just begun', says Prof. Haagsman. A piece of meat to show for this is too much to expect for the time being. Haagsman would be very pleased if he had only some minced meat.

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