Wetenschap - 10 februari 2011

Making meat

The universities in Wageningen and Utrecht will sink their teeth into making new meat. 'In vitro meat' is meat cultured in a test tube. Is this for real? Yes, even though it would be some time before the first cut finds its way to the shop.

Picture a piece of meat on your plate.
It's not from an animal, and it's not a meat substitute. It's real meat, made from real muscle cells. But without the presence of the cow, the pig or the chicken. Cultured meat. Sounds strange in year 2011. A flight of fancy? Not quite? In any case, it's not unthinkable. That seemed to be the case last week in the lobby in the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation (EL&I) where a joint project of the universities in Wageningen and Utrecht was kicked off, a project which would bring cultured meat a great deal closer. Here are ten questions about cultured meat.

1.    Isn't cultured meat science fiction?
No-one less than Winston Churchill had predicted the coming of cultured meat, already in 1932 (in the collection of essays 'Thoughts and Adventures'). Why keep an entire chicken when all you want is a wing, the then young journalist reasoned. Churchill's cultured meat is no longer science fiction. From stem cells, scientists can make muscle tissues grow.

2.    What's wrong with ordinary meat?
Meat is becoming more and more of a problematic product. Currently, 70 percent of farmland in the world is used for the production of meat. The livestock industry is responsible for loads of problems concerning the environment and animal welfare. Nevertheless, the demand for meat continues to grow worldwide, especially in upcoming economies such as China. A major question is whether the earth can cater to such demand. The search for sustainable alternative sources of protein therefore goes full steam ahead.

3.    What are the advantages of cultured meat?
A big advantage of cultured meat is of course that no animal is needed. The disadvantages of intensive livestock farming will therefore go at one fell swoop. Cautious calculations show that the ecological footprint of cultured meat remains behind than that of normal meat. Cultured meat promises to be a sustainable, climate and animal friendly alternative for meat.

4. Is 'kweekvlees' (Dutch for cultured meat) the right term?

Perhaps not. Some people claim that 'kweekvlees' has a high 'Frankenstein' ring to it. 'I have been calling it in-vitro meat lately. That's the technical term', says philosopher Cor van der Weele of the LEI. She is the coordinator of the project. 'Kweekvlees does not sound desirable and causes too many yucky reactions.' Rejection and disgust, to name two. 'Kunstvlees' (artificial meat) is also not right. Van der Weele: 'That gives a strong impression that it's not meat, while it is meat. Cultured meat is not a meat substitute; it is real meat.' Other terms are 'i-meat' and 'puurvlees' (pure meat). Does a name matter? Yes, it matters a lot. The name is one of the crucial factors which can influence the acceptance of the new meat by consumers.

5.    What is the role of Wageningen in this project?
The culturing research will take place in Utrecht, where the ball has started to roll in the past years under the leadership of meat professor Henk Haagsma. Wageningen will examine the ethical and societal aspects of cultured meat. Sociologist and PhD candidate Gerben Bekker will probe into the initial responses and attitudes of people towards cultured meat. Applied philosopher Cor van de Weele will be involved with the moral aspects of cultured meat.

6.    Ethics and technique together in one project?
Yes, this is done on purpose. EL&I wants to avoid cultured meat from going down the same difficult path of genetically modified food. Acceptance by the consumer is crucial. So we have to do this together. Van der Weele: 'Normally, the technique will come first, and then ethicists and philosophers will play their roles as critic and watchdog of the developments. For cultured meat, we will go hand in hand. In-vitro meat has its beginnings in society. The society asks for it because of issues such as animal welfare. The roles are therefore reversed: the society demands, the technique supplies. This is an interesting and promising development: ethics as the prime mover for the technique.'

7.    Is cultured meat a Dutch invention?
In 1950, the Dutchman Wim van Eelen came up with the idea to culture meat. In 1999, almost half a century later, he applied for a patent. The same man, now 87 years old, was also in The Hague last week. The Netherlands is still the leader, according to project manager Haagsman. 'A group in Sweden has received a European subsidy to start a pan European research. We will certainly cooperate. We are only doing a small project. Much more money is needed.'

8.    How is cultured meat made?
It starts with stem cells. You let these multiply continuously. After splitting, you let the cells grow into tissue cells. The tissue cells have to thread themselves into fibres. But it is not the intention to produce a real tissue, says Haagsman. That would be too difficult. The little muscle tissues can be used to make meat. It would be nice too to have minced meat as a start.

 9. Does cultured meat have to look like meat?
In theory, cultured meat can take any form. It's just a matter of technique and fantasy. And yet, Van de Weele feels that cultured meat would only have a chance of success if it looks like meat. 'People like meat and will continue to eat it. So it's better to be pragmatic. However, others say that meat has so many negative connotations that it's better not to be associated with it. I don't share that view. But it's interesting to explore it further.' A big handicap now is that there is nothing to show yet. Cultured meat is just an idea for the time being. Van der Weele therefore wants to involve artists or designers in the project to give cultured meat a form.

10.  When will the first cut be found in the shop?
At this stage of the game, there's still a long way to go. 'But I become more optimistic seeing the developments in the past ten years', says Prof. Haagsman, when asked. The project goal is in fact not yet defined, says Van de Weele. 'The project is a success if in four years' time, we are clear about the conditions under which consumers will eat in-vitro meat, and what makes in-vitro meat desirable and what not. And it would of course be really nice if we have a product too. So it wouldn't just be a shot in the dark.' The last word is given to the very elderly Van Eelen: 'I think that I would have to be a little bit older.'

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