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How will the world view the prospect of test tube meat?

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Having been reading the science around the development of in vitro meat for (Callie Jones)some time, I was fascinated to hear a different take on the issue given by sociologist Neil Stephens, from Cardiff University, at a meeting in March. His basic question was what might a world with this new technology be like. After all, meat can be an emotive issue.

The technology, which is being developed in the Netherlands, Sweden, the US and Canada, involves taking a small amount of cells from a living animal and culturing them in the laboratory to encourage proliferation into lumps of muscle tissue that could, in principle, be eaten. This is distinct from cloned meat where an entire animal, using technology similar to that used to produce Dolly the sheep, is cloned and then slaughtered.

But what will this food mean for the world? For example, is it meat or not? And would people eat it?

At the meeting I attended, about a third of participants said they would eat it. So the yuk factor may not be as high as some might suppose. And how might a vegetarian or a vegan person view this product?

Claims around the potential for in vitro meat focus partly on the environmental impacts of meat production, including greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water use, all of which in vitro meat is claimed to reduce. According to estimates to date, energy use in producing in vitro meat is higher than that involved in producing poultry and a little lower than that in pork production, but it is considerably lower than that used in beef production. However, measures of environmental impacts could change as research methods improve.

Given that in vitro meat does not involve killing an animal, some individuals and campaign groups suggest a social good around animal welfare and reduction in animal disease and zoonoses. Moreover, in vitro meat development is a form of stem cell science that, as within the medical research setting, looks to harness the growth potential of stem cells to grow quantities of healthy tissue.

In his talk, Dr Stephens said that the technologies have much in common, but the legal, ethical and social context of tissue engineering for food is different to that of tissue engineering for biomedical purposes. Further questions arise for livestock farming businesses. Possibilities apparently exist to use a type of algae as a medium for growing in vitro meat. So, might livestock farmers produce algae instead? Nutritionally, in vitro meat has been claimed to be potentially healthier because it could be produced with a healthier fat balance.

But how safe will this product be and how might it be regulated? Is it a processed food or, being produced from cells, is it a pure food? Will it be affordable? This project is still at an early stage and, although a single burger may be ready for consumption later this year, the cost is expected to be around US$300,000.

In vitro meat appears to be a long way off being available commercially, but it certainly provokes social questions of what the world might be like in the future and how we think about food and biotechnology today.

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