The Maneka Gandhi column: Hamburger in a petri dish? It could be a reality soon

The way we grow food is the single biggest reason for climate change, hunger, lack of water and disease. Livestock uses 70 percent of all agricultural land and accounts for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

hidden February 22, 2016 16:00:31 IST
The Maneka Gandhi column: Hamburger in a petri dish? It could be a reality soon

By Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

Imagine a future in which you can eat yourself - enormous steaks, kababs and biryani - with pieces of your own flesh without cutting them up or even worrying about cannibalism.

This future is almost upon us. In a 1931 essay called “Fifty Years Hence,” Churchill said, “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” The technology for doing it has already been invented. Like the IT revolution that crept along on the backs of a few twenty year old nerds and then burst into bloom in the mid-nineties, this one is quietly on the move on the backs of equally far-seeing and brilliant young people in their twenties.

Let me introduce you to some of them. Years later they will be as famous as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs – that I guarantee.

Either that or the world will have ended.

The way we grow food is the single biggest reason for climate change, hunger, lack of water and disease. Livestock uses 70 percent of all agricultural land and accounts for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and 8 percent of human water usage. Meat production is so wildly inefficient. We feed a cow 11 kilograms of food to get 1 kilogram of beef. Cows, buffaloes and goats eat up the forest. They are the biggest greenhouse gas emitters. Beef is raised on food humans could eat (soy, corn) rather than food humans can't eat (grass). Meat production is expected to more than double by 2050. The only way we can change this and save ourselves is to alter the way we eat.

The Maneka Gandhi column Hamburger in a petri dish It could be a reality soon

A meat shop in Maharashtra. Representational image. AFP

And here are the people who will do it:

Isha Datar, 27, a person of Indian origin is a Canadian with a BSc. in Cell and Molecular Biology from the University of Alberta and a M.Biotech from the University of Toronto. In 2010, she published a paper on the advances in tissue engineering that could be applied to cultured meat. Her work has contributed to the development of Canada’s first in-vitro meat lab at the University of Alberta. She is the director of New Harvest, a Washington based company that seeks to provide omnivores with meat in a more humane and eco-friendly way: by growing animal cells in a lab to make in vitro meat and milk. Isha wants to “create a solution from scratch, instead of having to rely on changes in behaviour.” Datar helps 80 scientists and volunteers connect with like-minded peers to collaborate and secure funds for their research. So far, she has helped raise thousands of dollars in grants for different initiatives.

She speaks across the world about the responsible use of science to contribute to food security. By producing these products this way, food production can be less resource intensive, more environmentally friendly, less prone to contamination, and more humane. “The way I see it, the meat on my plate is just a collection of tissues, and there are two ways of getting tissues,” she says. “One is to grow a whole organism and the other is to grow just a part from the smallest living thing: cells. The second option doesn’t require an animal to suffer and produce waste.” Producing cultured meat begins by taking a number of cells from a farm animal and “proliferating” them in a nutrient-rich medium. Cells are capable of multiplying so many times in culture that, in theory, a single cell could be used to create enough meat to feed the global population for a year.
After the cells multiply, they are soaked with nutrients and mechanically stretched to increase their size and protein content. The resulting cells can then be harvested, seasoned, cooked and consumed as a boneless, processed meat, such as sausage, hamburger or chicken nuggets.

Scientists say that lab-grown meat could produce up to 96 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional meat.

Is it really possible to grow a hamburger in a petri dish? Absolutely. Tissue engineering is currently used primarily for medical purposes — growing skin, veins, ears — but it can also be employed to grow animal muscle.

Last year, Mark Post, from Maastricht University, produced the world’s first lab-grown burger by taking stem cells from a cow and growing them in a culture medium. Isha’s company sent him $50,000 to help with the research. Today, Post, a New Harvest board member, is leading a team of 20 researchers on a two-year quest to create a better lab-grown man-made meat hamburger, an effort that is being funded by Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.

Depending on the finance, he should have it in supermarkets in 20 years. This year New Harvest is planning to showcase cell-cultured meat at the World’s Fair in Milan.

“Dairy alternatives like soy milk, almond milk are sold side by side with cow milk. I don’t see why meat alternatives won’t have the same pathway. Already, meat alternatives such as the veggie burger appear on menus next to other burger options. I see no reason why cultured meat won’t be offered side by side with real meats at all kinds of restaurants. It’s ridiculous that the US government and the EU fund industrial farming and not environment/animal friendly meat,” says Datar.

Why did Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google) decide to invest in this project? He shares concerns about sustainability, extremely interested in seeing radical new ideas followed and tested to see if they have any merit, especially those which would have a massive positive effect on mankind. The video covers Brin's interest in the project.

Modern Meadow, a company in New York under New Harvest’s umbrella, is developing in-vitro meat by using a tissue engineering technique called “biofabrication,” to grow leather from skin cells in trays in a lab. The company is also developing biofabricated meat, fish and poultry from muscle cells. The cells the company stores and uses, to “brew” leather and meat, are obtained through small biopsies that don’t hurt, injure or kill animals, Chief Executive Andras Forgacs says. Horizons Ventures, the Hong Kong-based firm of billionaire investor Li Ka-shingh has invested over $10 million in this company that is growing meat and leather in the lab. The company aims to help fashion designers and makers of leather goods meet the increasing global demand for their wares without taking a toll on animals and the environment. Biofab leather can be used to make consumer goods like apparel, shoes, luggage and sporting goods.

Currently it takes Modern Meadow about 1.5 months to make a square-foot leather sample that’s fully finished. That compares to 2-3 years to obtain, care for and feed an animal. The company is now worth $60 million dollars.

Many Indians abroad either head these companies or are working in them. I have asked my niece who studies in Berkeley to intern with these companies so that one day she can look back, when the world has changed and animals are no longer killed and eaten, and be satisfied that she was a teeny part of the process.
Next week I will tell you about more companies that are changing the world.

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