randombio.com | science commentary
Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Meat in a post-woke world

Prepare yourself for a monumental push to stop us from eating meat

F irst they came for red meat and I said nothing because I was too busy salivating over my juicy hamburger. Then they came for the non-free-range chickens and I said nothing because I was not a non-free-range chicken. Then they came for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and all I could say was: Hey, give me that back!

When it becomes impossible to tell whether a person is ridiculing it or being serious, it means a movement is experiencing its last gasps. The latest example is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which are now considered racist.

Eat more algae

Cows advocating the consumption of genetically-modified artificial food-like product

But food cannot be racist, and there are important considerations for both health and culture to be considered.

The war on cows

The arguments against eating meat are:

  1. Raising cattle uses a lot of land area, about 2.5 billion hectares, and lots of water.
  2. Cows allegedly contribute to global warming via emissions of methane, CO2, and nitrous oxide.
  3. It is unethical to kill living things for food.

The argument about land area is specious: in fact, half of the land dedicated to livestock, 1.3 billion hectares, is non-arable land, usable only for livestock[1]. If the animals were turned loose, they would still occupy the same amount of land, at least until they were consumed by predators.

Thus, the logical solution is to kill all the domesticated animals; simply releasing the cows to the wild would not solve the problem. Deer, rabbits, and other animals, which would overtake the grasslands, would have to be eradicated as well. This is neither sensible nor humane.

The commonly-recited claim that 15000 liters of fresh water are required to produce 1 kg of beef is also a myth. In fact, 95% of this water is rain for growing the crops, and it will not be saved as the plants will still exist. Only 550–700 liters are actually needed per kg beef;[2] and of course livestock also play a critical role in maintaining soil fertility.

Ruminants produce more methane than other animals due to the bacteria in their digestive system. Methane is indeed a greenhouse gas, though it does not accumulate in the atmosphere, and in any event it will continue to be produced if the cows are still alive. Eating beef is an efficient way for humans to obtain nutrients indirectly from grass, which we cannot obtain otherwise. At present it is unclear whether cultured meat would produce less greenhouse gas than livestock[2], as animal cells must be artificially maintained at the same temperature as living animals. The issue is already being politicized, which means we may never know the truth.

As for killing living things, everyone would agree that cows should be euthanized in as humane a manner as possible. There are painless ways of euthanizing animals that do not introduce drugs into the product, such as displacement of oxygen by carbon dioxide. Standard procedures are approved for doing this in lab experiments when an animal must be euthanized that do not produce anxiety or stress in the animal. These will sooner or later need to be implemented for farm animals.

Disadvantages of cultured meat

As part of the war on cows, we're being bombarded with claims that meat is toxic. But cultured meat would be no safer, as it would be chemically identical; toxic or carcinogenic compounds found in cooked meat arise from burning or searing meat or from nitrosamines, which are produced from nitrates. It's wise to bear in mind the old saying that the dose makes the poison: unless the dosage of individual chemical compounds is reported, reports of meat toxicity are not credible.

A major disadvantage of cultured meat is that producers would be free to alter its composition to follow the whims of popular culture. We saw this with real meat, where fat was carefully trimmed away, rendering it bland and tasteless. This practice led to the increased popularity of chicken and cuts of beef from which fat is harder to remove. We also saw attempts to clone fat-free pigs and leaner cows. The myth that eating fat makes you fat and causes heart disease in the vast majority of people has long been debunked, yet many people still believe it.

The temptation to tweak the formula during manufacturing to appease the non-scientific fears of the customer will be irresistible. It will be gluten-free, fat-free, cholesterol-free, and free of everything else the public decides on the basis of hysterical news reports might be harmful. Once real meat is made rare and prohibitively expensive, manufacturers can tweak the composition of fake meat at will. You will eat what they sell or you will go veg.

Finally, by many accounts, cultured meat tastes revolting. To make it palatable, it's necessary to add salt and spices. It also requires large amounts of fetal calf serum (FCS) to grow the cells: to obtain FCS, an unborn cow is exsanguinated and its blood is fractionated to obtain the serum. FCS would have to be replaced with a mixture of chemicals called artificial culture media, but if people are afraid of real meat because of the hormones and chemicals—many of which are prohibited in real meat—they should close their eyes now.

Bovine serum albumin, Catalase, Glutathione, Insulin, T3 (triiodothyronine), L-Carnitine, Ethanolamine, Galactose, Putrescine, Sodium selenite, Corticosterone, Progesterone, Linoleic acid, Linolenic acid, Lipoic Acid, Retinyl acetate, DL-α-tocopherol acetate (vitamin E), Ethanol. Growth factors such as TGFβ, fibroblast growth factor (FGF), and insulin growth factor (IGF) are also sometimes needed.

The above is a supplement that we need in the lab to keep cells alive and in the correct differentiated state. It is added to the basal medium. A typical formulation is called DMEM, which contains:

Calcium Chloride, Ferric Nitrate, Magnesium Sulfate, Potassium Chloride, Sodium Bicarbonate, Sodium Chloride, Sodium Phosphate, Monobasic L-Arginine, L-Cystine, Glycine, L-Histidine, L-Isoleucine, L-Leucine, L-Lysine, L-Methionine, L-Phenylalanine, L-Serine, L-Threonine, L-Tryptophan, L-Tyrosine, L-Valine, Choline Chloride, Folic Acid, myo-Inositol, Niacinamide, D-Pantothenic Acid, Pyridoxal HCl, Pyridoxine HCl, Riboflavin, Thiamine, D-Glucose, Phenol Red, Pyruvic Acid, L-Glutamine.

Food coloring will also be needed as cultured muscle cells are yellow, not reddish-brown; culturing cells at ambient oxygen conditions suppresses myoglobin expression. Of course, it is easy enough to manipulate the DNA to induce constituent expression of myoglobin.

This list of chemicals may sound harmless, but it is very, very expensive. The entire process must be kept absolutely sterile to avoid viruses, bacteria, and fungi while supplying purified nutrients—unlike a cow, a giant incubation flask has no immune system and no digestive system. To keep it sterile, manufacturers would have to pour antibiotics and antifungal agents on it, and test constantly for viruses and other pathogens.

FBS is insanely expensive: a small one-liter bottle costs US $1228, plus another hundred or so for shipping, as it must be shipped on dry ice, so manufacturers will be forced to use a soup of chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics, and then try to remove them afterward.


As to whether red meat causes cancer, despite many headline-inducing reports the science is still unclear. One article, written by skeptics of artificial meat in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition (as scary a journal title as you will ever see), points out another potential issue:

It is possible that cancerous cells might develop and be present in the vast amount of cells without being clearly identified. These cancerous cells are probably harmless because they are dead when the meat is eaten and in any case, they are digested in our stomach and intestine so that it is unlikely they will be incorporated alive in our bodies. However, this is a sensitive question for the consumer and this phenomenon should be studied to ensure the absence of health problems which might appear during cell multiplication, which is essential in order to obtain the official authorisations to place a product on the market.[3]

Anyone who cultures primary cells knows that they grow very slowly. Anything that grows faster, like bacteria or transformed cells, will eventually overgrow the culture. Since cancer cells are so easy to grow, manufacturers might even be tempted to replace their product with cultured cancer cells. These would not cause cancer in consumers, but it's not clear whether customers would really want to eat cultured tumors.

My suspicion is that manufacturers will think: if our fake meat is periodically overgrown with E. coli, Salmonella, yeast and Campylobacter, why not just make fake meat out of bacteria and eliminate the middleman? Bacteria are much easier to culture, and they can be cloned to produce animal proteins. So can algae. Put enough spices and monosodium glutamate on it to activate umami taste receptors, and even soy protein can be made to approximate the taste of meat.

And lest we forget, cells are still living things, so we need to decide whether the ethical issue is animal consciousness or life itself. Just how sure are we, really, that plants and cultured cells don't have an alternative form of consciousness of their own? If consciousness in livestock animals is the issue, there are ways to engineer around that problem as well: we could end up with warehouses stacked floor to ceiling with of cube-shaped genetically engineered cows with the nervous system engineered away. Is this better? I'm not sure. At least in our current system cows get to experience existence.

Whatever happens, knowing you humans you'll pick whichever one has the most horrific unforeseen consequences.

1. Mottet A, De Haan C, Falcucci A, Tempio G, Opio C, Gerber P. (2017). Livestock: on our plates or eating at our table? A new analysis of the feed/food debate. Glob Food Secur Agric Policy Econ Environ. 14,1–8. doi: 10.1016/j.gfs.2017.01.001

2. Chikri S, Hocquette JF (2020). The myth of cultured meat: A review Frontiers in nutrition 7,7 doi: 10.3389/fnut.2020.00007

3. Hocquette JF (2016). Is in vitro meat the solution for the future? Meat Sci. 120, 167–176. doi: 10.1016/j.meatsci.2016.04.036. PMID: 27211873

jul 14 2020, 7:41 am

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